In an unlikely clash of technology and nature, the Internet currency known as the "bitcoin" is becoming a big hit with organic farmers, particularly those in the Americas. So what’s attracting these farmers to such an intangible, unstable and – as yet – underused form of virtual cash?
On first glance, it’s certainly unexpected. One of the most ancient professions on the planet – farming, of the chemical-free, often small-scale, sort – is making use of a state-of-the-art electronic payment system. For something as tactile and down-to-earth as working the soil, it seems a rather incongruous turn of events. So why’s it happening?
To answer that question, we first need to explain what the bitcoin is. Well, it’s a "cryptocurrency", which means it’s a form of money that doesn’t exist in a physical state; it’s made up of encrypted code to ensure the secure completion of transactions.
Users have bitcoin wallets, accessible on any device that’s connected to the Internet, and can transfer the digital currency from their wallet to another wallet – at the click of a button. The contents of your bitcoin wallet can then be exchanged for "real" currency, though often (at the moment, because it isn’t mainstream yet) at a slightly lower value. The financial phenomenon launched in 2009.
Every little bit(coin) helps
Until recently, food producers who wanted to reach a wide customer-base directly have had to allow the use of credit cards, but these come with a hefty 3 percent transaction fee – and it’s the producer who foots the bill.
Bitcoins, on the other hand, offer a no-fee, risk-free, deregulated framework for transactions: there is no transaction payment, no middleman (such as a bank) to contend with and customers don’t need to carry cash around with them. It’s liberating and empowering for buyers and sellers alike.
The invisible currency is known for its volatility, so in the context of the farmer’s market – where small businesses and small transactions rule – there isn’t a huge amount to lose. A far better fit for farmers than for big businesses that have more at stake. As Garrick Hileman of the London School of Economics says: "Small businesses can take the risk with an emerging alternative currency."
The bitcoin brigade
The agricultural bitcoin boom all began in Argentina, thanks to organic farmer Santiago Zaz. The farmer launched an initiative bringing together small-scale, organic food producers in his local area, which he named the Tierra Buena Network. With the help of a techie friend who advised him to consider the bitcoin, he created a website that enabled consumers to pay using the currency – a bold move given that it’s still a relatively uncommon payment method.
But it’s catching on. More and more organic farmers running small businesses are commercialising products using bitcoins and creating websites to accommodate the innovative payment method. It’s now taking off in the US, where the currency happens to be most popular.
In our age of hyper-industrial farming, which is putting a huge strain on our bodies, our animals and our planet, organic farming presents a clear opportunity to help fix our broken food system. Although it may draw on time-tested techniques, it’s incredibly innovative. So perhaps the ultra-modern bitcoin is actually entirely appropriate for organic farmers.
But the bitcoin suits smaller-scale organic farming in yet another way – its decentralised character. There is often no intermediary for either, with produce going from the farmer direct to the buyer and with bitcoin transactions leaping straight from one wallet to another.
Furthermore, in the words of the BBC News Business Editor, Robert Peston: the bitcoin "has grown in an organic, slightly anarchic and devolved way, with no central oversight or control". Sounds rather like an organic smallholding, doesn’t it?
For a fascinating snapshot of organic farmers using the bitcoin, check out this short documentary.