Field to Shelf

Field to Shelf

Online Documentation System

Imagine buying a bag of herbs or a bottle of essential oil and being able to type the batch number into a website to see a satellite image of the field or meadow in which it was grown or collected, photos and details of the farmers or collectors who harvested it. This was one of the functions of ‘Field to Shelf’, a bespoke web-based documentation system that we developed for managing our records.

Record-keeping in the Himalayas is not an easy task. We were working with farmers and collectors with limited education, often located in remote valleys several hours walk from the nearest road. One of the farms was so remote that it could only be accessed for six months of the year via a high mountain pass. Despite the best intentions of our team of field officers, vital records would often be left under the seat in a bus or in the back pocket of their jeans to be beaten to death by the local laundry wallah…

Rather than trying to file all of our records in our office, we came up with the idea of creating an online record-keeping system. Even back in 2007 internet access was surprisingly widespread with GPRS-enabled mobile towers already a well-established blot on the landscape. An online documentation system would allow our field staff in Lahaul to conduct an internal inspection (required as part of our group growers’ organic certification) and feed records into a central database without having to cross mountain-passes to deliver it by hand to the Biolaya HQ.

Ram Singh crossing Rhotang Pass in April to conduct an Internal Inspection of Rubling Farm
Lahaulis crossing the pass early in the morning before the snow softens underfoot
One month later the road was 'open' for the organic inspectors to visit the farm
Rather than going back and forth over the pass all the time, we developed an online system that local field officers could use to upload records
Internal Inspection records for Rubling Farm

We developed the system with the help of Tenzin, a local genius of Tibetan origin (now working as Tenzin didn’t even own a desk when we first started working together, yet had somehow taught himself how to create remarkably sophisticated websites.

The system was designed to capture key records on the farms, wild collection and post-harvest processing, allowing us all to have a single point of access and reference. It turned out to be an excellent way of managing our Internal Control System and Wild Harvest Management Plan; we often found ourselves either uploading or referring to inspection records from remote mountain sides, and were able to make quick decisions based on the information it provided.

What was initially intended as an internal management tool also became a powerful quality assurance tool. Instead of e-mailing scanned copies of key documents to the certification body, we would simply send them the login details and they would have all the information they needed. Similarly, when the forest department or the CITES office questioned how we could prove the kutki was cultivated, we would simply invite them to log in to our system.

The system also proved to be a powerful marketing tool. It’s not often buyers can find out at the touch of a button where the ingredients of a product came from, including details of the farmers / collectors, satellite images of the fields or meadows in which the plants were growing, photographs of the crop, internal inspection records, test reports and so on. In terms of adding value to a product, from a buyer’s perspective there a few things more valuable than having access to this level of information (although there would be situations in which it would foolish to reveal the location of key plant habitats and wild collection sites).

With technology evolving all the time, and with more farmers having access to smart phones and the internet, this type of traceability system is becoming more feasible even in remote areas of India. In the no-so-distant future I think this type of system will become a much more prominent feature of high-end organic produce.

Since leaving India I have continued to work on this concept, and have plans for Field to Shelf version 2.0 brewing for when the time is right.