This story is about ice cream. But first, some sad facts:
Despite growing demand for foods produced locally and sustainably, small-scale farms in the Pittsburgh region and across the nation still struggle in a marketplace dominated by a small handful of massive companies.
While the larger trend toward consolidation goes back several decades, Christine Grady, general manager of Rivendale Farms, says more recent advances in farming technology have turned a longstanding gap into a chasm.
“The agricultural landscape is changing, and not for the better,” says Grady. “Big Tech, Big Ag gets bigger and bigger, and small and medium-sized farms are struggling more and more.”
Specifically, recent innovations in robotics, automation and data analytics have allowed large, industrial farms to increase their efficiency and production many times over, leaving small farms with even less room to compete.
When film producer and Rivendale owner Thomas Tull approached Grady more than a year and a half ago to manage the farm, he didn’t just want her to create artisanal products. He wanted to pioneer a new approach to the industry.
For Grady and her team, “the question is really, how do you help smaller farmers become more efficient and have some of the advantages that Big Ag has?”
To that end, the team at Rivendale forged a partnership with the Carnegie Mellon School of robotics to turn their 175-acre farm into a laboratory for technologies aimed directly at small and medium-sized farms.
For the past month, a team of students has been testing a wheeled monitoring system that uses data analytics and high-resolution cameras to survey the field and spot pests and weeds. That data is then reported to the farmer.
“We really want to focus on the technology and innovation for farming that helps sustainable farming, smaller-scale farmers, and helps to preserve a critical part of the economy, that at the moment is a really tough business to be in,” explains Grady.
Located in Washington County, Rivendale is a diversified farm with seven acres devoted to crop production, a year-round greenhouse and 500 free-range Rhode Island Red chickens. But their main focus is their herd of Jersey cows, whose milk is used to produce their signature ice-creams and chocolate milk.
Beginning next month, their pints of ice cream will be available for the first time on the shelves at Giant Eagle and other grocers.
Fans can already get Rivendale ice cream during games at PNC Park, where the suite level was rebranded with underwriting from Rivendale. The farm also supplies the milk for ice cream at the Milkshake Factory locations, also a Tull property.
Grady, who spent many years working in tech entrepreneurship in the U.K. before coming to Western PA, tells NEXTpittsburgh that in addition to pioneering new technology, the farm also imports many best practices from across the globe.
For their milking system, they borrow a technique first pioneered in Denmark, where the pumping apparatus sits in a corral that the cows can enter and exit as they wish. Essentially, it’s self-service milking.
“It’s a very relaxing environment for the cows,” she says. “The best quality milk and the best yield is from a relaxed cow.”