The Intersection of Plants and People
What happens when you gather a group of independent farmers and tech geeks together in a room? It may sound like the premise of a lightbulb-screwing joke, but the results so far from the non-profit Farm Hack community have been brilliant, inspiring and sometimes wonderfully, usefully eccentric. A retrofitted electric tractor, a chicken coop that follows its foraging inhabitants around the barnyard, and a monitor that texts the farmer if the greenhouse’s temperatures go dangerously awry – these are all results of Farm Hack’s unique goal of blending agriculture with “open source” technology.
Because of the immensity of agribusiness and its mega-machinery, many of the old tools used in cultivating land have become relics quaintly rusting next to barns. Farm Hack’s main credo is that every farmer should not be hindered by exorbitantly priced farm equipment or by the lack of technology suited to small-scale operations. However, the focus of Farm Hack is not to topple agribusiness, but to happily move on, rewiring good agricultural practices around the behemoth.
“We feel that agriculture is such an important human enterprise that every farmer should have access to the best possible technology and that, that shouldn’t be what’s limiting these enterprises,” explains Dorn Cox, Farm Hack’s President of the Board and himself a fourth-generation New Hampshire organic farmer.
Farm Hack community members gather in meetings and online to discuss and publicly document how to build better, more affordable tools, either from scratch or from recycled resources.
To give an idea of what farm equipment costs these days, John Deere’s base-level agricultural tractors are priced at over $17,000 USD. The numbers rise from there to larger models with bigger engines and their various attachments. It can add up quickly, going from a price comparable to a decent, new car to the cost of a very nice home in the $400,000 range, before add-ons. Because of these daunting economics, a favorite hack ingredient of young farmers is the Allis-Chalmers Model G gas-run tractor, an early 1950’s machine that can be bought for under $2,000 on eBay and pimped out with an electric engine for a few thousand more – less than a third of John Deere’s base-model costs.
The idea of open source has been spreading for almost two decades since the heralded success of the computer operating system, Linux, now a multi-billion dollar business. Linux began in the late 1990’s as a hobby project of Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds. Torvalds wanted to openly collaborate on his software with other programmers, not expecting that his product would one day power a wide range of technologies, from the New York Stock Exchange to smartphones.
Though Linux is a free, open source software, the companies built around the operating system thrive. Linux distributors produce and sell software to companies that don’t have the expertise or time to adapt the code for their own uses, and Linux programmers can earn a living by modifying, setting up, and troubleshooting existing software for businesses.
Bringing the open source technology to agriculture is akin to farmers sharing seeds bred to taste better or adapted to grow in harsher climates. The blueprints for Farm Hack tools are available to any user signed up to the website, and any member can post their “hacks” or alterations to a tool, for others to try. It’s an ecosystem of ideas that can be used for an individual farmer’s one-time purposes or further developed into non-patented products or kits for sale. Farm Hack’s open source platform has opened the way for a much-needed Agricultural Spring (no pun intended), breaking down the barriers to the world’s most basic form of human sustenance and profit.
R.J. Steinert is a Farm Hack board member and a programmer for Apitronics, a startup that creates open-source hardware and software inspired by an early Farm Hack project.
“At the first Farm Hack I went to in New Hampshire about two years ago, one of our farmer friends was telling us about how the prior season he had lost tens of thousands of dollars of starter crops in his greenhouse this one spring because it got too hot too quickly,” says Steinert.
Steinert collaborated on an Arduino-board-based system that would remotely alert the farmer through his cell phone of extreme temperature changes in the greenhouse. The designs were then open-sourced onto the Farm Hack website, and through a small grant from the University of Vermont, the collaborators installed the hardware for the farmer.
At Apitronics – which last fall successfully raised money in a Kickstarter campaign – engineers like Steinert and company founder Louis Thiery develop reasonably priced kits which allow farmers to remotely monitor farm activity. If the greenhouse overheats, if a gate has been left open where livestock are penned in, or if the irrigation needs to be shut off during a downpour, remote “Bee” computer boards set up on-site relay this urgent information to a central “Hive” which then transmits the message via text to the farmer, who could be acres away from the problem or even out-of-state.
“When I go to Farm Hack meetups and talk about these ideas, they seem really novel and it makes me wonder, if people did not advocate these things, would it happen?” Steinert asks, adding, “I’m looking forward to the five, the ten, the fifteen years from now, and seeing what kind of an impact these ideas have on agriculture.”
As for any concerns that open source gives away ideas to the competition, Steinert explains:
“There’s always the chance that as a business, you open source it, and then everybody else decides, ‘Okay, we’re going to sell this, too.’ But the market is not that fast, and your competition doesn’t come rushing in. And so, during that time, you happen to be the first one there. You build a brand and people trust you.”
While some people might view today’s farmers as nouveau hippies dreamily “going back to the land,” the occupation is drawing highly educated folk who want to return to old-style farming in 21st-century ways.
Cox is an unusual combination of worldly businessman and homegrown organic farmer. Currently finishing up a doctorate at the University of New Hampshire in Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science, Cox received a Bachelor of Science at Cornell in International Agriculture and Rural Development, then left the farm for ten years to work in the software and finance world in places like Argentina and Hong Kong. In conversation, he’s humble about his own accomplishments, and thoughtfully idealistic about the possibilities of Farm Hack.
Cox explains that Big Ag’s sales of sterile seeds and patented plants goes against what he calls the “natural profitability” of agriculture. Farm Hack, he says, was in part begun to allow the farming community to bring the treasures of the land back to the people.
“Agribusiness is very different from Agriculture, and I like to emphasize the idea of Culture,” Cox says. “Fundamentally, it’s about putting one seed in the ground and you’re able to get a hundred or a thousand back, and the fact that you get a natural return on that investment in time, and by mixing your labor with what nature returns, you get an abundance. And then, you put a certain amount back.”
For more information about open source and independent farm communities, see Find: Small Farm Communities.