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Farm Hack

Welcome to the virtual coffee shop for agrarians!

Pull up a laptop and join the conversation. Do you have a farming issue on your mind, or maybe a tool design that you’d like to share, a crop problem that needs to be solved, a beginner’s question that needs to be answered, or an intriguing idea that needs to be floated? If you do, Farm Hack is the place to go.

It’s not the Bellyache Café, however. Leave all complaints, rants and political opinions at the door.

This might be unusual for a web-based conversation site, to say the least, but there is a lot about Farm Hack that is unusual, as I found out last week when I attended a Farm Hack ‘meet-up’ in Hotchkiss, on Colorado’s western slope. A small group of farmers, ranchers and conservationists met for a day to tackle the difficult topic of “Drought Resilience on a Small-scale Farm” against the backdrop of rising water scarcity in the West. If ever a subject needed a coffee-shop brainstorm, this was it.

The nonprofit Farm Hack (www.farmhack.net) bills itself as an “Open Source Community for a Resilient Agriculture.” It was born during a design workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involving engineers and young farmers and quickly evolved into an online platform to document, share and improve farm tools. If you are a young farmer in possession of an old tool, or a veteran farmer who seeks a new tool or someone who has invented a new practice or has a cool idea in mind, Farm Hack is the place to go. A quick peek at the web site, for example, reveals ‘how to’ information on the benefits of a small axial flow combine harvester (way cooler than it sounds), picking the right organic carrot seeds, implementing a web-connected irrigation system, trying a pedal-powered rootwasher, and using low-cost overhead balloon-mounted cameras for imaging a farm.

If that sounds more ‘tool shed’ than coffee shop, Farm Hack is also where young farmers – including the young-at-heart – can start a conversation with experienced agrarians, skirting the need to reinvent various wheels on the farm (unless your wheel is of an exotic design!). Case studies of successful operations will soon be available for farmers to peruse. In addition, the site serves as a platform to share the latest sustainable ag research and make connections with like-minded individuals and organizations.

And you don’t have to burn a gallon of diesel to get to this meeting place!

Farm Hack was incubated by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a nonprofit founded in upstate New York in 2010 by and for a new generation of farmers in the U.S. (www.youngfarmers.org). NYFC is composed of young farmers, established farmers, farm service providers, good food advocates, conservationists and conscious consumers. Its mission is to support 1) independent family farms; 2) sustainable farming practices; 3) affordable land for farmers; 4) fair labor practices; 5) farmer-to-farmer training; 6) farmers of every gender, race and sexual orientation; and 7) cooperation and friendship between all farmers (and ranchers).

Accomplishing this mission includes the open-source culture of the Internet – which is a big reason why Farm Hack is so unusual. The site is managed on the ‘wiki’ model, which means it can be freely edited by registered participants and a wide variety of content can be easily uploaded for all to see and share – all it takes to register is a user name and password! The site is dynamic, flexible and ever-evolving, much like the young farmer’s movement itself.

For new farmers, the site can be a godsend because of the pressure to quickly ‘get it right’ in the challenging times in which we live. Accumulating farming experience over twenty years, for example, might not cut it in a world rapidly changing economically and ecologically. “Building spreadsheets has become as important as picking the right crops or watching the weather,” is how one participant put it. Mentoring is one way to gain valuable knowledge, but so is access to the information and data on Farm Hack.

Two of the original founders of Farm Hack were Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a co-founder of NYFC, who coined the name, and Dorn Cox, a young farmer near Lee, New Hampshire. In a previous incarnation, Dorn worked in the high tech world where he became familiar with systems theory, managing complexity and open-source hardware and software.

The word “Hack” comes from the tech universe, Dorn told me, where it means “re-purposing” with the goal of taking control of one’s destiny. With “Farm Hack” the goal of the nearly one thousand registrants is to repurpose agriculture with farmer-to-farmer innovation sharing and problem-solving. It is also their goal to engage non-farmers in the conversation, including designers, engineers, policy advocates and anyone else interested in building a resilient food culture.

“It’s a return to an earlier model when agricultural information was widely shared,” Dorn said, “rather than locked up in obscure journals or scientific articles as it is today. Just as the local coffee shop or diner serves as the hub for exchanging experiences, a virtual ‘coffee shop’ and field walk is needed to facilitate relevant experiences.”

Fortunately for us in Colorado, there was nothing virtual about the coffee!

Here’s a photo I took at a local farm near Hotchkiss:

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Just as crucial as the online community-building and information-sharing are their offline equivalents, called “meet-ups,” “hacks” or “hack-a-thons” (if longer than one day) which are face-to-face workshops. Farmers have always been “into” the latest gear, Dorn noted, including new-fangled plows, tractors and harvesters. This means laptops and smart phones are just the latest in a long line new technologies embraced by agrarians.

“We are focused on attracting into our community not only farmers but those with other relevant skill-sets,” Dorn said, “including engineers, roboticists, architects, fabricators, programmers, hackers. It is those that live to build and make things work that are the key allies to turn ideas into tools and then into finished products.”

There have been a dozen hacks around the country to date, including events in Vermont, Detroit, Minnesota, and New York City, on topics as diverse as how to grow small grains, utilize draft horses, fix a tool, and start a farming operation. Our job in Hotchkiss was to ponder the future of sustainable agriculture in face of hotter and drier conditions promised by climate change.

One controversial idea discussed involved “water banking” in which owners of senior water rights, many of whom are farmers, would forgo their water (but not their rights) temporarily to cities on the Front Range in exchange for financial compensation. There was also a great deal of technical talk about irrigated agriculture, fulfilling the ‘tool shed’ function of the hack.

It was a sobering discussion. Water scarcity is a daunting challenge in the already arid West, especially if urban centers get aggressive politically or economically. Nearly 80% of Colorado’s fresh water is consumed by agriculture today, much of it for water-intensive crops such as hay or alfalfa. The state’s agriculture sector may enjoy senior water rights now, but for how much longer? As the saying goes, water flows uphill toward money – and everyone knows where the money is.

Hint: it’s not in Hotchkiss!

Farm Hack can help by not only stimulating discussion but by also providing a platform for sharing innovative solutions. There’s certainly plenty to ponder whether in a virtual coffee shop or the real thing.

Here’s a photo of a cherry tree taken at the end of the workshop:

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What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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