This summer, a new traceability service is being launched across 54 counties in Ontario that will be able to quickly identify the whereabouts of every farm in the province.

It's not unlike Google Earth. In fact, you'd probably call it Google Farm, if the technology was a product of the Google family.

But it's not. Rather, it's a product of our own tax dollars, being developed by a Guelph-based not-for-profit traceability firm called OnTrace Agri-food Traceability, with $10 million in support from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Its real value is for quickly identifying farms in emergencies, such as in disease outbreaks, natural disasters or eco-terrorist attacks, or when opportunities arise, such as possibilities for collaboration and innovation within the agri-food industry.

I naively thought someone already knew where to find Ontario farms. After all, we count farms and farmers all the time, for census purposes. Pork producers know how many pork farmers raise pigs, and where. Chicken farmers know where farmers raise chickens. And on it goes, through the major commodities.

But the truth is no one's traditionally held a grand inventory of farms. Ontario's privatized land registry, Teranet, describes a property in legal terms, but not necessarily in practical ways.

That's where OnTrace comes in, through an initiative called the Ontario Agri-food Premise Registry. A six-month pilot program for this registry finished in late 2007 in four counties, including Waterloo Region.

The exercise entailed compiling the location of several thousand farms, identifying them by their whereabouts and, where possible, by the agricultural activities that take place on that property.

Unlike Teranet, the premise registry is not concerned with tax rolls; rather, it wants to know where, what and when, and it's quite happy leaving financial matters such as "how much" up to others.

Participation in the four-county pilot was voluntary. OnTrace CEO Brian Sterling says farmers associated with the six commodity groups that participated in the pilot program did so because they saw the value in being on the ground floor of a new traceability system in Ontario. They also saw the value in improving and validating existing data about farm locations.

In the future, farmers will continue to be offered the service as an option, but with a twist. Earlier this month, OnTrace struck a deal with an organization called GS1 Canada, which is likewise a non-profit group, part of GS1 International, which is designed to promote e-commerce and maintain global standards for identifying goods and locations. Working through OnTrace, this deal gives Ontario farmers access to the GS1 global location number, enabling them to participate in the same global system that manages retail bar codes.

Traditionally, farmers haven't needed that level of traceability. However, with accountability becoming increasingly important, Sterling predicts farms with GS1 locator numbers will have a better chance of being part of various value chains.

For example, manufacturers who provide farmers with inputs (such as feed) have these GS1 locator numbers, as do processors. Farmers who take part in the program can close the gap. And imagine the new level of accountability if every ounce or gram of farm produce could be traced back to its origins.

At farmers' market, you wouldn't have to guess if the produce being offered was indeed local food.

I see the possibilities, but I also see the challenges OnTrace will face convincing farmers it's not too intrusive. A good communications foundation with the agricultural community will be needed to endear trust.

OnTrace's chair and several of its board members are farmers, as well as representatives of various commodity organizations.

As far as credibility goes, that gives it an important start.