Farm Hack is a response to a need – not only for access to often fundamental agricultural knowledge, but also for a different way of organising, relating, and owning in UK farming systems. It is almost entirely in opposition to the agricultural research and educational mainstream, which is predicated on large-scale technologies, top down knowledge transmission, and intellectual property regimes.
In this opposition there is a lot to celebrate – but also urgent problems to address. Farm Hack – like most political interventions – is not the answer, but a call to arms; it prefigures a different world, but in doing so, it also shows the distance left to travel.
This blog is two things – firstly, it is an attempt to give a brief update on the most recent edition of a UK Farm Hack, but, secondly, it is also meant to echo both the hope and concern that I heard during the event. Built around the idea that Farm Hack both prefigures and reveals, I give some details about what this Hack consisted of, before offering my two cents regarding the future of Farm Hack and UK agroecology research and training more generally.
Farm Hack: Thames Valley
Farm Hack Thames Valley took place at Greenbroom Farm between the 16th-18th August this year. It was the fourth UK Farm Hack since the concept was brought over from the US in 2015, not counting a number of other related events (i.e. ‘Soil Hacks’, ‘Lady Hacks’ and Land Skills festivals) that have occurred in that time.
The Thames Valley Hack built on this legacy, opening a weekend-long space for collective building, knowledge-sharing and problem solving. Open to all those invested in small scale, ‘sustainable’ farming, Farm Hack particularly targets young and new entrant farmers, agroecological in intent, and thirsty for knowledge.
This Farm Hack put at the heart of its programme the idea of ‘build projects’; that is, prototype ideas, proposed in advance, then worked on over the course of the weekend, intersplicing skillshares, and (most importantly) a process for identifying shared ‘problems’ intended to seed future hacks. This approach offers not only a radically open space of knowledge sharing and production, but a unique perspective on the shortcomings of our present.
First, the positive stuff. Farm Hack’s explicit aim is to create ‘a community of collaborators interested in developing and sharing open-source tools for a resilient agriculture’. True to this knowledge commons approach, the programme itself was effectively entirely crowd-sourced.
Firstly, the three build projects – a vacuum powered seeder; a flame weeder, and a biochar-producing TLUD stove – gathered during the initial call out for ideas, provided the central structure of the programme. In the intro session, each ‘project lead’ pitched their idea, in an attempt to recruit co-developers.
Secondly, the remaining gaps in the programme were then populated with session ideas based around either a skill-share or a ‘problem to be solved’. From an organisational point of view, the session took us into uncharted territory. Never before had I been at an event that relied so much on the content devised and delivered by attendees.
And here’s the important bit: top down transmission of ideas (whether through ‘demand-creating’ industrial technological innovation or rigidly predetermined conference programming) has a lot to do with control, and to relinquish this feels like a gamble.
I am delighted to say the gamble paid off – ideas came thick and fast, particularly ideas for collective problem solving: from low carbon solutions for moving bulk material around the farm, to new organisational forms for the Farm Hack network. Attendees self-organized and started hacking out possible solutions. This process has already borne fruit: a ‘mini-hack’ has been scheduled to build a zip-line system for transporting wood chip and compost across the host farm, Greenbroom.
Farm Hack operates – thrives even – on a low cost model. Hacks are volunteer-run, low-tech, low-risk, low-maintenance affairs which can be run almost anywhere (providing there is a farm willing to host for free). All costs are recovered through a relatively small ticket fee (scaled to income) which pays for food, marquee hire, any other consumables, and even some travel expenses for those who need it.
This low cost model makes Hacks remarkably supple organisationally and easily scaleable. With enough interest and access to tools (made all the more easier with the magnificent Travelling Toolbox (itself the product of a previous Farm Hack)) almost anyone can run one. Compare this to your average conference costs or international mobility funds which can run into the thousands – even tens of thousands – of pounds. Indeed their high costs can put even more pressure on organisers and the compulsion to resort to top-down knowledge transmission.
In this respect Farm Hack makes most sense as a territorially-situated event, with attendees mainly coming from the local area, to build local capacity and networks, and to promote a ‘Design global; Manufacture local’ approach. The Thames Valley hack was deliberately regional in scope, and the hope is that future hacks will continue this trend. Such an approach draws consciously on a tradition of ‘popular education’ – that is, learning as something which people can do for themselves, where they are, and in their own way.
Farm Hack reveals the structural shortcomings of the knowledge mainstream
Farm Hack wouldn’t exist, though, if it weren’t for very real structural problems. Farm Hack’s popularity is (in part) a sign that growers can’t access the training – or the type of training – they need through more conventional routes. As recent research at CAWR indicated, ‘transformative’ agroecological learning is rooted in farming practices, but takes form through peer-to-peer, transdisciplinary, and ‘translocal‘ learning strategies. Such content and form is either missing from mainstream provision – or inaccessible due to cost.
Some problems, however, are much bigger than agricultural education and research, per se. It is widely acknowledged that new entrants’ biggest obstacle is land access. Many attendees found themselves in this position, either because of land shortages or inadequate financial support. One attendee exclaimed at one point, “What’s the point in training new entrants when there’s no land for them?!”
All these problems point to the frontiers of the agroecological movement itself, which often finds itself out-gunned by the organisational and financial clout of ‘Big Ag’. The extent of land concentration in UK is well known, but this privilege also brings with it the power to set the political agenda, which routinely promotes high-tech, intensive, and large scale agriculture.
In spite of such daunting opposition, a recurring theme at this Farm Hack was the thirst to explore new organisational options which have proliferated at the radical fringe: ‘Holacracy’, ‘agile decision-making’, and ‘Sociocracy 3.0’, to name but a few of the ideas being chucked around during the hack.
Farm Hack boasts a healthy network of volunteers, and a low cost model, but this can’t last forever – I felt extremely lucky to be a part of this Farm Hack group, but what happens if this suddenly changes? We may be lucky enough to be replaced by another team as equally willing …but we may not be. Farm Hack at least has the perfect platform to begin experimenting with organisational forms suited to Farm Hack’s decentred and action-oriented ethos. Perhaps a organisation-focussed Hack may be on the horizon…? Watch this space.
In the spirit of such experimentation, and in the aim of stimulating discussion, here are some ideas which may be useful in the future development of Farm Hack and agroecology education and research in the UK.
Possible strategic focusses for UK Agroecology
- Education and research governance at ‘territorial scale’ – this may seem an obvious one as locally controlled food systems have long been a feature of agroecology and food sovereignty; however, this has yet to have been operationalised at the level of education and research. One promising angle would be the use of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGSs) as a way to co-produce and peer-verify training at the local level, negating the need for cumbersome national standards.
- Training course frameworks, developed in context – an obvious component of a territorial approach, this would involve agreeing a basic structure for agroecological training which can be tailored to place-specific needs, while maximising networking opportunities for all trainees/learners.
- Minimal reliance on funding ‘treadmills’ – the pioneering Cuban agroecologists ANAP made this a key part of their political strategy, avoiding paid staff where possible, in order to minimise power imbalances between trainers/trainees, and reliance on external support. Some small pots of money would be essential, however, to pump-prime network activity and minimise risk for organisers.
- Research and learning embedded within land access schemes – land access remains the biggest obstacle for the agroecology movement, and a number of important schemes have emerged in the last decade to tackle this (e.g. ELC, or the Kindling Trust’s FarmStart scheme). Opportunities could be explored to embed learning, mentoring and farmer-led research in these activities.
Teaser photo credit: Vacuum seeder ‘build project’ team working on their prototype