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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Farmer-driven Community Embraces Open Source Communication to Accelerate Innovation on the Farm

February 5, 2013 |

Flame weeder demonstration at Essex/Intervale Farm Hack. Photo Credit: Kristen Loria.

Employing web-based social networking technology to simulate old school neighbor-to-neighbor information share, Farm Hack is a farmer-driven, collaborative project that develops, builds, documents and shares tools for resilient, small-scale agriculture. The secret behind it all is its use of an open source web platform that allows users to edit all the pages on the site – it’s basically a wiki site for farm technology and innovation – resulting in a user-driven community that self-evolves according to the needs of its members.

“It’s not a new thing for farmers to repair their own equipment, adapt their equipment or design new tools – this is something that’s been happening for centuries on small family farms – but the idea of Farm Hack is to use new forms of communication technology and organization to accelerate that process,” explained Kristen Loria, Farm Hack Coordinator. The general aim is to help make small farms more viable, successful and numerous, an evolution which Farm Hack believes will bring us towards a more sustainable, resilient and healthy system of agriculture and food.

Farm Hack accomplishes this in a number of different ways. Born in 2011 from the efforts of several Greenhorns and National Young Farmer’s Coalition members as a simple farm tech blog, the online community now provides templates for users to post documentation of tools they’ve designed or unrealized ideas they have. Other users can then leave general feedback, ask questions and suggest design modifications. This open source platform is based on shared knowledge rather than intellectual ownership and thus bypasses the sluggish protocol of licensing agreements and legal battles of the more traditional patent system. When those proprietary hurdles are lifted, the speed of technology adaptation and evolution drastically increases – models are seamlessly adopted, modified and re-modified to suit the specific needs of the individual. This is one of Farm Hack’s central missions, to lower the barriers of information sharing from farmer to farmer and to rejuvenate the historically rich culture of resourceful on-farm tinkering that the rise of industrial agriculture and its expensive, high-tech machinery seem to have subdued.

“The code involved in technology is just like saving seeds and exchanging them,” said Dorn Cox, Farm Hack advisory member, who likes using an analogy of seed exchange to explain the platform. “We have the capacity to reproduce building codes and publish that, just like a genome sequence, for these various types of farm tools. We’re customizing it just like we would do selective breeding.” And akin to cross-breeding for specific desirable traits, Farm Hack facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas. One group of Farm Hackers, for instance, built an automated digital greenhouse monitoring device, whose design was then appropriated and modified by other users so that it notifies the farmer to problems via cell phone text message, thereby bypassing the reliance on landline or Internet connection required of commercially available alarm systems. The FIDO monitoring project is emblematic of Farm Hack potential, whose innovators received a SARE research grant from the USDA to further develop the tool.

That particular design idea was born at one of Farm Hack’s in-person gatherings. Extending the open source ethos to the non-virtual world, Farm Hack partners up with universities, agricultural non-profits or farms to launch weekend-long gatherings countrywide that feature intensive brainstorming, design sharing, farm tours and farm fresh food and drink. They’ve hosted eight events thus far, mostly in 2012 and around the Northeast, but 2013 will see an expansion of Farm Hack event outreach, with meetings already planned as far west as Davis, California. The Midwest Farming Association even offered to host a Farm Hack event itself and a group in New York City now has monthly design share meetings.

“This is exactly what we want to keep happening – individuals or organizations deciding that they have the ability to host their own event, independent of us,” Loria said.

The gatherings and the online user base are populated by disparate characters – from engineers to software developers to architects to backyard tinkerers – not just farmers. Part of Farm Hack’s broader mission is to facilitate collaboration with “people who wouldn’t necessarily naturally connect with farmers but who have complimentary skill sets,” Loria said. “Tools and agriculture aren’t just hardware and machines anymore – there’s a lot of digital technology now, so we’re trying to bring in a broader set of people and to create a seamless way for them to collaborate and share ideas as if they were living next to each other.”

The success and continual growth of the young Farm Hack community hasn’t come without encountering its fair share of challenges. Though it mitigates budget issues through non-governmental grants, a staunch DIY spirit and a volunteer heavy team, expanding and refining the functions of the website is “shockingly expensive,” Loria said. “When it comes down to it, farmers are extremely busy people,” she added, so the importance of maintaining an accessible, intuitively operating site is paramount, and the team is always looking for ways to improve how people convene and share ideas. Still, with an average of twelve new users a day, it seems the spirit of open source collaboration runs strong.

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