Advancing Organic Agriculture Through Online Platforms: An Interview with Kellee James

Advancing Organic Agriculture Through Online Platforms: An Interview with Kellee James

Mercaris is a market data service and online trading platform to help progress organic and non-GMO agriculture in the United States. The company addresses the lack of market infrastructure, upon which the entire organic agriculture chain – from producers to retailers – depend and provides up-to-date, accurate information on market conditions for organic and non-GMO products. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with founder and CEO, Kellee James on her inspirations, goals, and perspective on the future of our food system.

Food Tank (FT): What/who has inspired your work? Why?

Kellee James (KJ): I've been so blessed - my faith and family inspires me.  I'm doing what I love. Also, getting involved with organic food and agriculture means going to organic industry events, and generally eating very well!  I've always been attracted to core issues - the basics.  Food, water, energy, air quality - because if we don't get these issues 'right,' well, other things become much more difficult, if not impossible. I get inspired by offering new solutions to big challenges.

FT: What are your professional goals for the future?

KJ: To build Mercaris as a resource for the organic food and agriculture sector, and to build the Mercaris team. Launching a start-up is an all-consuming endeavor.  Its takes everything you have, and then some. It will keep me busy for quite a while.

FT: Do you feel that change is necessary in the food systems today? What changes? Why or why not? How have you tried to contribute to that change?

KJ: Absolutely!  In a nutshell, our food system today doesn't account for externalities. We've gotten good at producing a few 'cheap' commodities (corn and soybeans), while not accounting for things like water quality, soil quality, biodiversity, diversity of crops, etc. What's needed is a fuller accounting of the various benefits and costs involved in food production. Mercaris is one response to the need for better information. By bringing market data and transparency to the sector, we help lower transaction costs - from producer to processor to retailer. We help the supply chain get more efficient. 

FT: What steps do you think are necessary on a local, national, or international scale to solve some of the problems that we face concerning hunger, obesity, sustainability, agriculture, or industry?

KJ: Well, as economists say, 'there's no free lunch.' The system we have today in the U.S. produces a lot of cheap food, which in some ways is good. But, the costs to our food system are becoming ever more apparent. There are a lot of externalities: obesity and poor nutrition (often in the same individuals), soil and water quality, rising use of pesticides and herbicides.  What we need to foster are alternatives:  different production systems, choices for the consumer, and the infrastructure (including accurate information) to support new food and ag systems at scale. 

FT: In your position, what was/is your greatest obstacle? How have you overcome it?

KJ: Creating something new takes a lot of energy; where do you start?  How do you find the resources? How to you manage for success? You have to draw on support from within--your own determination and creativity and abilities; as well as your community - mentors, advisors, friends, colleagues. Overcoming those 'barriers to entry' was a matter of being organized and intentional about pulling together those resources to get started, and to stay the course. 

FT: What do you consider your greatest success? Why?

KJ: I think that's to be determined. Certainly, if Mercaris can help foster real, positive change in food and agriculture, that will be a success. Likewise, if I can inspire and encourage by example, other people to take on big challenges, that will be more impactful than any single action I could point to.

FT: What advice do you have for young women hoping to make their mark on the food and drink industry today?

KJ: So much advice is given to women. We are told to "Lean In," or that "we can't have it all," and that we have a "confidence gap," and on and on. So I say simply that the women I've met along the way are incredibly self-aware, wise and gifted. I trust them/us to lead the food & drink sectors. We'll keep pushing because the stakes are so high and the opportunities are great. I look forward to seeing more young women in leadership roles!

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