Pescadero farmer Kevin Watt had only a passing understanding of the term hackathon when he attended his first such event at Stanford University last weekend.
Granted, the hackathon Watt chose wasn't in any way typical. Called Hack//Meat, it gave participants three days to combat a problem in the meat industry by creating a business plan, honing a policy idea or introducing a new form of technology.
The 27-year-old came as an observer. He wound up clinching the grand prize.
“I had no idea we'd be proposing an idea and forming a team,” Watt said the day after pitching his winning startup idea — called FarmStacker — to a panel of industry judges. “We got totally lucky.”
Luck may have played a part, but the five-person team, bereft of engineers and programmers, still beat out ideas from their more tech-oriented competitors. The judges even preferred their idea over a “Google calendar for killing” that would help slaughterhouses process orders.
FarmStacker came up with a system to help match young farmers with underused land and encourage them to start cooperative relationships with the landowners. It combines elements of travel rental site Airbnb with the dating service eHarmony, Watt said — except that the ramifications could be more far-reaching.
The idea spawned from Watt's own family-run business, Early Bird Ranch, which owes its existence to a collaborative leasing arrangement with a larger farm. Watt and his wife, Shae Lynn, rent between 20 and 30 acres of land from TomKat Ranch, whose owners raise grass-fed cattle for beef. Since the cows only graze for part of the year, Watt and his wife struck up a deal that would allow them to graze their chickens and turkeys during the offseason, using a rapid rotation method that constantly shifts the birds to fresh plots of grass.
The collaboration creates a symbiotic relationship, Watt said. The birds fertilize the ground, creating better, fresher, more nutrient-rich grass for the cattle. That in turn helps both businesses.
He says Pescadero probably holds ample opportunities for similar collaborations, if only farmers and landowners knew about them.
“I know a whole lot of farmers who are still looking for land,” said Watt, adding that other friends had launched farms and burned out, largely because they didn't have enough capital to support them.
He saw an easy solution in the so-called sharing economy model, in which entrepreneurs borrow their overhead from an industry that someone else has capitalized.
Watt and his team won $5,000 in seed money from Hack//Meat, which launched in December in New York City.
The hackathon's sponsoring organization, Food + Tech Connect, also granted him face time with angel investor Ali Partovi and Stephen McDonnell, CEO of Applegate Organic & Natural Meats, plus a slew of business classes and other perks. Watt said he wants to get his new enterprise off the ground as soon as possible.
Correction: This article was updated on June 26, 2013. A previous version of this article incorrectly named the idea that won the Meat//Hack event and the prize money. The FarmStacker group won $5,000.