Rory O’Sullivan is living proof that you can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. Originally from Australia, the CEO of Grain Discovery has spent the last 20 years working in a range of positions throughout the grain value chain, both Down Under and here in Canada. Growing up on the family farm five hours northwest of Melbourne, he couldn’t wait to leave his rural roots behind, and his initial field of study was architecture. But five generations of farming couldn’t be ignored, so he switched to agricultural sciences and never looked back. As project lead of Field to Glass–The Next Generation of Barley Traceability, he draws on his schooling and two decades of experience to oversee a team using advanced digital technology to bring agri-food accountability and transparency to new levels of sophistication.
He provides a bit more detail, “In 2017, I was working at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board when I met my Grain Discovery co-founders. They were techies, and the three of us started talking about the potential impact of blockchain technology on the grain supply chain. The ability to track and demonstrate every step of a food’s provenance is a real game changer. We spend billions of dollars improving our crops, but the way grain has been marketed is essentially the same now as it was a generation ago. Blockchain has the capacity to demonstrate premium quality directly to an increasingly demanding consumer.”
“Our first product was a white-label app sold to grain buyers that allowed them and their farmers to do every aspect of their marketing conveniently on their mobile phones. The gold standard for grain traceability, especially here in Ontario, is found in identity preserved soybeans. It’s a sector where premiums can be as high as 30% based on variety, but it still relies on paper and pen.” Rory pauses to reflect before continuing. “We wanted to find another premium product that lent itself to an advanced digital tracking system. That meant choosing a crop with a customer base as concerned about quality as the producer is. The explosion of the craft beer industry made malt barley the obvious choice, especially given that buyers tend to be a very small number of malt houses, whose operators are fastidious when it comes to grain quality. In other words, we didn’t have to educate the buyer on the value of tracing the barley’s journey. Another advantage of choosing this specialty grain is that farmers, agronomists, or buyers already supply product details. Therefore, creating the digital manifest isn’t adding to their workloads. We’re simply modernizing the way they enter their data, providing a single digital tool usable by all the supply chain stakeholders.”
The project has also yielded a marketing benefit. It occurred to Rory and his partners that the wine industry has been masterful in positioning the identities and qualities of different types of grapes, thereby adding to the value of the wine itself. They believed the popularity of craft beer meant the same approach could be applied to barley and high-end suds. This was an opportunity to extend the value of tracking inputs and processes beyond providing a premium to the producer and reassurance to the buyer. Used creatively, the technology would allow artisanal beer makers to brag about their product in much the same way as wineries do about theirs. Hence the inclusion of storytelling in the Grain Discovery project. Response to a pilot run with Alberta’s Blindman Brewing has been very positive. That company’s labels now include a QR code, which, when scanned, takes you to a website that tells the beer’s story starting at the farm level with the certified seed grower and including every stop of the barley’s journey—what Rory’s team calls a “digital passport.” So far, about 30 craft brewers are on board for the next stage of the project. Soon, they, too, will include QR codes on their labels to share their “plant-to-pint” stories with discerning consumers.
CAAIN’s support has benefited the initiative in a number of ways. First, it bolstered the initial product research and development. Second, it allowed the team to take the app from proof of concept and scale the technology to a pre-commercialization stage. Finally, the funding is facilitating the networking and business development activities necessary to attract buy-in throughout the supply chain.
Rory concludes by describing what he believes will be the long-term value of this project. “More and more Canadians are demanding food system accountability. In other words, they want to know what’s in their food and drink, and they want details regarding the provenance of what they consume. Our work is the thin end of the wedge, and when we succeed, we will be among the standard bearers for true traceability throughout the agri-food supply chain. Essentially, we’re moving the digital goal posts, and that’s something to be proud of.”
Total Project Value