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Okanagan tech: Break up with your grocery store

Jeff Ricketts (right) discusses some of the challenges of being a new organic farmer with Matt Gomez, the mastermind behind Soil Mate, a new Kelowna tech start up. Below: Matt Gomez - Jennifer Smith
Jeff Ricketts (right) discusses some of the challenges of being a new organic farmer with Matt Gomez, the mastermind behind Soil Mate, a new Kelowna tech start up. Below: Matt Gomez
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Soilmate.com helps food-conscious consumers find farmer soul mates

With a glint in his eye, one can see Matt Gomez’s heart start racing as he pitches his young company Soil Mate.

The tech startup is a well-crafted farm-to-table social networking site pairing consumers with the farmers, farmers’ markets and wineries to eat and drink local, and farmers with the technology and marketing expertise to compete in a world geared to industrial monoculture.

“This is a small team that’s full of heart and cares about the mission more than the business,” said Gomez, who launches a cross-continent introduction to farmers and shoppers this month.

Within the next year, he expects to have more than 30,000 farmers signed to the site, to outpace his only competition, and within two to three years see large enough profits to buy up farmland all over North America for Soil Mate farms capable of helping young farmers get a start or neighbourhoods establish community gardens so everyone can grow food.

Heart is at the centre of Gomez’s business and he fully admits agriculture and food is a passion, not an expertise.

He was raised in Luton, England—it topped the Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the U.K.—and his knowledge of food systems boiled down to buy-one-get-one free at the supermarket.

Nevertheless, he succeeded young and was running an airport ten times the size of Kelowna’s before his 25th birthday. It was a dream job for most and delivered a six figure income, but when his best friend died following heart surgery, Gomez realized it wasn't for him and set out travelling the world to find his passion.

Matt Gomez“Pretty much everybody around the world—in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina—once you’re outside the city, everything is based around the market,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a big discovery for me.”

He met his wife and moved to Kelowna. He learned about genetically modified food, pesticides and the distance food travels to our plates as he adjusted to his new agriculturally-focused home. By the time his children arrived, the seed was planted; it was time to find good locally grown food.

“What we found was there wasn’t any convenient way to find some very basic information: who grows what, how they do it, when it’s available and how to buy it,” he said.

Soil Mate grew organically.

Gomez was working in a very successful web design company, Acro Media, and quickly devised a game plan: connect farmers to consumers, and consumers to farmers. He hired Acro to build a responsive website to serve all needs.

“We’ve leverage all the best available parts of every other type of online system to work for farmers for free because we appreciate the work they do and we want to be able to help them to build a sustainable system for our food,” he said.

The site allows farmers to blog, put up photo galleries, feed in social media and basically use it to replace a website. Once it gets up and running, farmers will have access to the data it produces for free. Social media sites are selling big data to help companies target-market, hone their brands and access consumers like never before, and Gomez sees no reason why the data on his site can’t do the same for farmers.

“If Soil Mate is successful, we’ll be able to advise people who are currently in agriculture on trends …and if you’re someone who wants to get into farming, we’ll be able to help with the business plan,” he said.

By knowing when kale has taken a downturn and Swiss chard is trending, producers will know what to plant. The information the site generates should indicate which products people tend to care are organic. And things like what products someone shopping for local peas would likely want to purchase with the peas at the same farm should become apparent.

Within a week, Soil Mate will begin pre-seeding, asking consumers to sign on, even if there isn’t a farm registered in their area, so Gomez and his employee, Okanagan College grad Drew Vincent, can start finding farms in that customer’s area. Farmers will be asked to get connected to start marketing their crops.

“Our logo is a heart-shaped beet because we see food and food security as the heartbeat of the community,” said Gomez.

The Okanagan is his ground zero community.

From Jordan Marr, a local organic grower, to Alan Gatzke of Gatzke Orchards, he’s used the Central Okanagan farmers to provide guidance.

Jennifer Schell, a farm-to-table columnist for this paper, is doing blog posts and he has used the same farmers' market consultant, Vance Corum, as the Kelowna Farmers’ Market is using to sort its growth plan.

It means the world will  soon be able to see that Jeff Rickets, an organic farmer on Gordon Drive, produces the next best thing to locally grown quinoa—a grain called amaranth.

“It’s not really in the amounts that I could get people's attention and provide all of what they need, but I’m working on it,” he said. Adding his inventory to the Soil Mate site should help make the connection.

Ricketts told Gomez he doesn’t have a ton of time so he needs Soil Mate to be quick and easy to use.

“Simple was really the key ingredient for me,” he said.

Soil Mate is also exactly what he was looking for before he became a farmer and wanted to source local, organic produce, Ricketts said, and as a new producer, he is exactly the type of farmer the company’s social enterprising approach should be able to help on a number of levels.

“This is great, you really can see what’s in the area, what’s close and all the little farms that may not do a lot of advertising or have a website can be on the site for free,” said Ricketts.

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