MSIM interns help launch farmer-friendly start-up

Orchard farmers in Eastern Washington may seem a world removed from UW iSchool techies in urban Seattle. But marketing consultant Robert Wilkes began mentally linking the two after talking to a pear-farming friend about the economic asymmetry between the growing and processing sides of the orchard business.

Fruit growers consign their crop to a local "packer," the middlemen who wash, sort, grade, pack, cold store, and sell their crop. Packers make money on volume and can turn a profit even in a down year. Growers are sensitive to market prices and face higher risks. And while some use multiple packers, most growers have a one-to-one relationship with their packer.

"If growers had more information, they could negotiate for these services from a more advantageous position," says Wilkes, who helps his farmer friend harvest pears each season in the Yakima Valley. Together, the two brainstormed ideas and came up with an information service to boost farmers' economic power. It provides Web-based tools that compare costs and prices among packers within a wide radius of any given farm.

Wilkes presented the idea to iSchool Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) program chair Mike Crandall and asked about enlisting interns in the project. By January, after a year of steady work and weekly meetings, he was wrapping up the first phase of the business model with Day MSIM students Hong Wei, from China, and Josh Lin, from Taiwan.

The interns faced enormous challenges. Even as they worked on their own English language skills, they had to make the Web site farmer-friendly. Many potential users would be older and might have limited computer skills. The interns also had to develop a complex database that handled intricate levels of detail, such as a specific fruit's grade, organic status, and storability. MSIM classes in taxonomy, systems analysis and design, project management, and information services proved invaluable.

"A lot of the year was taken up dealing with the complexities, but by the end of the year, the interns made it look simple," says Wilkes, who has been creating brands and marketing strategies for over 25 years as president of Wilkes Creative. "The interns were persistent, technically outstanding, and they made this project happen."

Wei, who had worked as a technical consultant on large, mature databases in Shanghai, China, visited the orchards, packing plants and warehouses, asking numerous questions as she considered database development design for the project. "All these terms were very abstract until we went to the farms," she says.

Lin worked on the user interface, using, C# and Microsoft SQL programming skills he learned in the MSIM program. He used his user experience design knowledge to create an easy-to-navigate Web page that resembles the reports packers send to growers. "Our hope is that the farmers can use the Web site intuitively without help or assistance," he says.

Farmers who buy memberships at can enter their reports, then compare their packer to other packers in their area. Early tests with pear farmers have been positive. "We found the farmers were hungry to study the data and determine the marketing options they have," says Wilkes.

The project team is now designing a program for apple growers, and Wei, appointed acting IT manager, is interviewing more interns from the MSIM program to help with the expansion.