Jacy Rittmer grew up on a little farm outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she can see the stark change in farmers’ fortunes.
“Our rural economies right now are suffering,” she said. “I drive back and forth from Colorado all the time and that drive takes you through rural Kansas, through rural Nebraska. And the closer you look at things, the worse it is. Like there’s no place to get a good cup of coffee between here and Kearney, Neb. — but we drive through tons and tons of tons of small towns. There’s just nothing there anymore. There’s no feed businesses, there’s no grain businesses, there’s no cafés, there’s no diners, there’s no grocery stores. There’s Dollar Generals, but there’s nothing else.
“We need to switch back to the way we used to [produce food], but with a better twist on things to make it more sustainable, more scalable, more supportive — and supported by consumers. The main end is if consumers ask for this, the money will follow.”
Rittmer and co-founder Brett Dugan launched their startup, Bytable Inc., to build a new kind of food system: one that “supports quality producers and gives consumers the tools to make the right decisions about the food they buy and the companies they support.”
The Bytable team moved from Iowa to Colorado Springs last spring as part of tech accelerator Exponential Impact’s 2018 cohort. They have since successfully demonstrated their food traceability and transparency technology in stores, with specialty egg labeling that showed consumers every step their eggs had taken to reach them. And in April, they launched the first online marketplace for regeneratively grown food products (shop.bytablefoods.com).
Rittmer, who has a bachelor’s degree in Biological and Pre-Medical Illustration, describes her path to AgTech entrepreneurship as “a wild ride.” This week she spoke with the Business Journal about her drive to fix a “broken and unsustainable” food system, and how individual consumers can make a difference.
Walk us through what Bytable does.
Our overall mission is to increase the amount of information that consumers have to make choices about their food and where their money is going, because we believe in a systemic approach to fixing problems within our food system. We believe that if we can help farmers who are doing the right things for the environment, for their animals, for their workers, to get that part of their story to consumers, the consumers will, in turn, fund those businesses and make sure that they can grow and scale. One of the problems in the food system right now is that we don’t have a lot of that. We have a lot of misleading marketing; we have a lot of certifications that don’t really mean much anymore. So as a company, we try to mitigate those issues in the food system by providing more information to consumers. We do that through blockchain and distributed ledger technology traceability. … We also provide market access [through Bytable Marketplace]. We service the whole supply chain from producer all the way to consumer. By providing every possible link in that supply chain to the right people, we can get those products to market at a price that consumers can afford and at a price that gives the farmer what they need to continue doing what they’re doing.
… We can actually plug all the traceability data in to the products that we’re selling to consumers so they can see everything. And that’s the long-term goal for the marketplace: to be a totally transparent, traceable, ethical place to buy food.
What are our misconceptions about how our food is produced?
It depends on the product. For example, on our marketplace right now we have meat from Callicrate Beef who sells out of Ranch Foods Direct here in Colorado Springs. And for that beef, what Mike [Callicrate] does is completely different than what a lot of farmers do. Mike has regenerative practices; he pays his workers a fair wage. I’ve been to the farm, I’ve seen his processes, I’ve seen how happy his animals are, and he does everything with the utmost respect for everything involved — for the animals involved, the people involved, for his land, for the water system in Kansas where they’re raised. He does all of that and his operation is a fantastic thing to see. But when you compare that to a regular operation — Mike is selling his beef at the same price that you typically would see at a regular store, and this other meat, we really have no idea where it came from. It’s probably processed by one of the four main companies in the United States that do meat processing, in a gigantic facility, where workers have next to no benefits, they have no way to negotiate, the animals aren’t treated right. There’s no respect to the process at all. And so consumers [need] to be able to tell the difference… . You get things from Tyson that are labeled ‘natural chicken’ but ‘natural’ has no actual meaning to it. When a consumer sees that they think, ‘It’s not processed at all, it’s much better for me, there’s less additives.’ But there are no bodies regulating that term at all. There are so many things like that. It’s so hard to be an ethical consumer. And that’s why we do what we do.
How do you work with the consumer and with the farmer — who pays you?
For the marketplace, we take a margin on products that go through the store. And the margin that we take is so much less than the margin that gets taken off when you go through a traditional food system. For example, for each dollar spent on food in the traditional system, the amount of money that a farmer makes is less than 14 cents. So if you spend $2 on a chicken breast, the farmer gets 28 cents of that. The rest of it goes to processors, distribution and retailers. So when we say we take a 15 percent margin, that is less than what most companies give as a wholesale price. We’re able to do that because of the way that we’ve built our company — because we have this marketplace section, which allows these farmers to grow their business, and then we provide other services that help with things like the traceability, and the sensors to help them stay within regulation, it helps them comply with USDA rules, and it also helps them keep product quality high by monitoring temperature and humidity. And so if these businesses can succeed by selling through this marketplace and keep within regulation by using these other services, then we can create a better and alternative food system to what there is now.
What started you on this path?
I grew up on a little farm in Iowa, just outside of Cedar Rapids, and my dad is a big gardener. He’s a little eccentric — we have about 11 acres and about one of those acres is garden, which doesn’t sound like very much but that’s a lot of garden. And he would buy all the meat from the local butcher and he would buy his chickens from Amish people in Kalona. Growing up, I always had the best garden-grown food all year round … and then I went away to college and I did not have that anymore. I had this vitamin deficiency and I also got three concussions in my second year of college, because I played soccer. I had this pivotal moment where I was was like, ‘I’m not healthy. Something isn’t going right. I need to stop doing this.’ And a lot of that was pertaining to diet. Most of the people within the company have also had a pivotal moment like that, where it’s like, ‘I need to change what I’m doing.’
… I was a vegetarian for 12 years for ethical reasons. I didn’t eat meat because I didn’t know where my food was coming from; I didn’t know if [the animals] were treated properly, and I just didn’t feel right doing that. … When I was 21 or 22 I had to start eating meat again, because I had taken up weightlifting and I needed to add more protein to my diet — and there was no way for me to do that ethically and responsibly. So I started into this whole startup thing where we were trying to create a place for local food, so it was easier to get access to local foods no matter where you were, so there was a local food system in place that you could access easily without having to go to a farmers market one day a week, in the summer only. Because otherwise, it’s really difficult to get meat. So I started doing that. It just grew and grew, and the more I learned, the more I plugged myself into this system, the more I thought I could fix it — that I had a skill and a reason and the motivation to figure out what was wrong and cure it.
Do you hope that this is part of a new solution for farmers?
Yes, I absolutely do. I think it’s just about the only way we can do it. If we continue doing what we’re doing now, we will not have soil to grow food in 60 years … and that is terrifying. So we have to find an alternative thing — and that alternative is not going to be big companies sticking a new label on their existing products and not changing anything. It’s going to be a way for consumers to support people who are doing it right; to grow our local economies again.
What can the individual consumer do right now?
Educate yourself on what makes a good food product, what makes a product ethical and regenerative. Know that there’s so much misinformation out there to sift through. And also know that your dollar matters, when you spend it in the right places. … Consumers kind of have to come together and say, ‘We do want this to be the best it can be, and we’re willing to pay more for it because it’s better for everyone.’ Because when you buy cheap food, it’s not really cheap. You just pay for it in other ways.