Who gets to bake the cake?
With the holiday season approaching, allow me to share a dessert recipe: a “hacked” cheesecake from a Japanese user-contributed recipe website. On that website, many users find ways to take good old recipes and vastly simplify them.
Here are the three steps:
- Make a crust at the bottom of a baking pan by breaking graham crackers (90 g) mixed with melted unsalted butter (40 g).
- Mix two eggs, sugar (80 g), flour (3 tbs), lemon juice (2 tbs) in a blender or using a whisk, and additionally blend in heavy cream (200 ml) and cream cheese (250 g; softened in microwave).
- Pour the mix on top of the crust and bake for 45 minutes at 340° F.
“This will make your cheeks fall off (from smiling so wide),” as the Japanese say to describe the jolt of joy and happiness of great food. And as a dairy enthusiast, you would be particularly delighted at the transformation of these simple ingredients—the magic of lemon juice, flour, and cream yielding an exceptionally smooth and rich desert sandwiched between a toasty cracker bottom and golden upper-crust.
That cooking website (and accompanying app) is one of the most successful examples of crowdsourcing to-date (along the lines of Wikipedia for an encyclopedia, TripAdvisor for travel, and Yelp for restaurants, etc.). Crowdsourcing allows information and fresh ideas to be published quickly and reviewed by fellow users over time. Designs embedded in those websites promote collaboration and friendly competition among users via rating, voting, and commenting on the existing content and creating new content. In the case of the Japanese cooking site, users report their cooking experiences with the recipe by posting their photos and short messages, and those interactions motivate the creator to revise the recipe, create more recipes, and develop his or her online profile. Many users network with each other to find similar styles of cooking, discover new recipes, and improve their cooking skills.
I bring this up because one of my Extension projects is the development of a crowdsourcing site for dairy farmers to network and exchange ideas. Our pilot is being developed for the community of robotic milking users who face new challenges in efficiently adopting the technology. I am advocating for intensive producer networking because it can be a novel way to strengthen the U.S. dairy industry at a grassroots level, which I believe is important for dairy communities to be viable leaders of rural America for decades to come.
Consider a thought experiment of how to make a combined group of forty 200-head dairies as profitable as a modern 8,000-head dairy. The collection of the smaller farms is up against an array of comparative advantages of large-scale operations, including scale economies; a technical team of in-house nutritionists, veterinarians, and mechanics; and a professional advisory board consisting of strategic consultants and high-stake stakeholders. From a resource perspective, the collection of the forty dairies, when combined, would find themselves having too many cooks in the kitchen (decision-makers) and too much redundant cookware (equipment), compared to the single, large-scale counterpart. This means that even if the group becomes as competitive in day-to-day operations as the large farm, there would not be much economic rent left for their cooks. Another way to look at this is that the large-scale operation needs only a small margin to pay for its owner and stay in business, and in a long run such operations will increase in number and drive the milk price down to the level of their production cost. For such a collection of dairies to be economically sustainable, they will need to stay more efficient than their large-scale counterpart, which means innovating faster and adopting new technologies resourcefully.
How would that be possible? The answer, I believe, could be in turning the countless “cooks” into strength. New ways of dairying need to be continuously assessed and tested from various viewpoints, and the knowledge base should be shared for its fast and robust expansion. Innovation in isolation will be too slow and haphazard to be sustainable in this increasingly consolidated landscape of dairy production. It is time to share ideas and collaborate with others for the sake of your enterprise. Lend your skills to those experiencing similar challenges because they are best positioned to return the favor. We need to continue hacking the recipe of Mother Nature and modern technology, not just in multimillion-dollar R&D projects at multinational agribusinesses, but together in a resource pool at the farm and community enterprise level. “The more the merrier” to share the recipe and taste of success.