by Kristen Loria
Started in 2011 by a team of farmers and engineers from the Northeast, Farm Hack is a project of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition in partnership with the Greenhorns. The start of Farm Hack came with an offer from MIT to host a teaching event that could connect ‘do-gooder’ engineers with farmer’s needs. Co-founders of NYFC, Severine Fleming and Ben Shute had been working to start up a blog for a project called “Farm Hack” and they jumped on the opportunity to launch a program at the world famous engineering school. Farm Hack has since evolved into a living open-source community for farmer-driven design collaboration.
And so it began…attendees of that first event were inspired to come to the second event; farmers, computer programmers, electrical designers, and organizers gathered again in New Hampshire to work on mapping out the website, the forums, and the methodology of our events, and building a strategic plan for the community. Now, a year later, they have been joined by core members of the community: Dorn Cox of Tuckaway Farms in NH, Rob Rock of Pitchfork Farm in VT, RJ Steinert, Drupal developer, Andy Wekin of Pedal Power, Chris Yoder of Van Gardens CSA and a few others are holding strong and working to develop more and better programming. We have now had 7 ‘Farm Hack’ gatherings across the Northeast and are starting to branch out into other formats, both online and in person.
Why Farm Hack?
Farmers have long been tinkering, designing and building farm technology on their farms and sharing it with neighbors. However, with the rise of industrial agriculture, the culture of on-farm tinkering, resourcefulness and scrappy adaptation was replaced with expensive, high-tech farm machinery. The goal of Farm Hack is to rejuvenate the historically rich culture of on-farm innovation, sharing and collaborative design and move it forward in support of a more resilient agricultural system.
This is particularly important for today’s startup farmers, many of who are not employing laborers, are repairing older equipment, are running diversified farms, and trying to stay as cost competitive as they can with the global economy. It makes business sense to adapt new labor-saving devices, and particularly ones that aren’t too expensive to hack together. Acquiring the skills to build, repair and adapt is a great asset to all farmers, and a growing strength of many in the young farmers movement. Farm Hack facilitates collaboration between advanced designers and old-timer fabricator neighbors, educating beginning farm-shop users, and connecting everyone involved in the goal of the project.
What is a “Farm Hack” Exactly?
A ‘Farm Hack’ is a gathering to build community, in-person and online. Today’s farmers rely on 21st century technology as well as the old fashioned method of conversation to learn what it takes to farm profitably and sustainably. Farm Hack follows this logic through discussion, demonstration, “show and tells” at in-person events as well as through an online wiki and forum at farmhack.net. Through this accessible platform, we can include and support a community of not just farmers, but software developers, engineers, architects, machinists and backyard tinkerers that are able to pool their knowledge and resources and communicate and coordinate through online and physical meeting spaces.
Farm Hackers meet at regional Farm Hack events, discuss a new tool idea or adaptation, and draw up the beginnings of a design schematic and build plan. After continuing research, discussion and documentation through the online platform, collaborators can meet up once again to complete the build in those calmer winter months, testing the design, making alterations and finalizing the tool by spring.
Along with all of the hard thinking and productivity, Farm Hacks always wind down with good food and good drink. This is an important ingredient, that the engineers and other, non-farm team mates understand clearly that this work isn’t about high pay per hour invested, instead that it is about satisfying relationships, delicious food, resiliency, network-building, and collaboration.
To date, Farm Hack has hosted 8 events in the Northeast and the Midwest: Farm Hack MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, SUNY-ESF, New Hampshire, Iowa City, Essex NY/Intervale VT, Ithaca NY (with the Groundswell Center), and Brooklyn/Queens. For all Farm Hacks, we partner with local universities or non-profits as well as local farms and farmers. In keeping with the scrappy grassroots spirit of the Greenhorns and National Young Farmer’s Coalition, these partnerships ensure that each particular Farm Hack event is shaped by the needs of the that community, as well as its strengths.
For Farm Hack Ithaca, the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming was a key organizer and host of the event, and is a perfect example of the kind of partner we love to work with. They have a huge stake in young farmer viability, and have convened an amazing community of talented, experienced farmers in the area to pass on their knowledge to new farmers.
Farm Hacks on the docket for 2013: Farm Hack Davis, California in early February will focus again on grain production and processing, as well as equipment sharing arrangements and retrofitting. We are hosting this in partnership with NCAT and a couple of amazing farms in the Davis area. Farm Hack Detroit, Michigan will be in March 2013, and will focus on all things urban agriculture. We will be convening a great community of urban farmers and hackers to address the challenges of the flourishing farm community there. And stay tuned for a Farm Hack focused on horse technologies.
The Online Platform
As a wiki site, Farm Hack users first make a username for the community, and introduce themselves. They then have the power to upload new designs in the Tools section, comment, edit and ask questions about other posted designs. In the Forum section, Farm Hackers can discuss various topics through conversation threads, whether it is brainstorming for an upcoming event, sharing resources for component sourcing, or suggesting improvements to the website. Finally, the Farm Hack blog shares innovations and other news of interest to the Farm Hack community. The Farm Hack site is still young, and we have many plans for expanding and improving functionality in the coming year.
FIDO: a Farm Hack Success Story
One Farm Hack success story is FIDO, a farmer-built electronic tool that can monitor greenhouse temperature, record greenhouse data, and alert the farmer to problems in the greenhouse via cell phone text message. FIDO is a project of Ben Shute (Hearty Roots Community Farm) and computer programmers Louis Thiery and RJ Steinert. The three met at Farm Hack NH, and came together over an idea for an automated arduino greenhouse monitor. Shute came to the event looking for a way to monitor greenhouse temperature and other conditions in a greenhouse located miles from his farm, and without the phone or internet connection usually required by such monitors. Thiery and Steinhert proposed the arduino solution, and after continuing their research after the event, the three met up at Shute’s farm to do a test run of the build. The three also applied for and received a SARE research grant from the USDA to develop the tool. Shute now uses the monitor in his greenhouse operations, and the full documentation is posted on farmhack.net. Thiery is in the process of developing pre-made greenhouse monitors to sell to farmers, with the help of a Kickstarter grant.
The Future of Farm Hack
With the Farm Hack project, we hope to provide the spark and the structure for independent collaborative communities to develop and sustain at the local and regional level, while maintaining an online connection to a nationwide community of farm hackers. As with the tools that we prototype, adapt and document, Farm Hack itself is an open-source, evolving concept and framework. After each Farm Hack, we learn a bit more about how we can best facilitate the community and improve the process of design, documentation and dissemination.
This winter, we hope to buckle down on our projects, using the lull of cold weather to wrap up loose ends, return to the bright ideas brainstormed through the season, and document, document, document. Though Farm Hack is still a young community, we have a big vision for expanding the functionality of farmhack.net, growing our network of farm hackers, connecting farmers to seed money to develop and document their innovation ideas, and forming documentation fellows to preserve and share the vast number of tools, old and new, already in existence that can be of use to small farmers.
Find out more on past events, future events, and jump into the Farm Hack community at www.farmhack.net.
Kristen Loria is an organizer with Farm Hack. She may be reached at 607-351-0554 or email@example.com