Text and video by DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Normally, when one hears the word "hacker," the image of an obese guy simultaneously playing World of Warcraft, eating Funyuns and attempting to infiltrate the CIA mainframe from his parents' basement springs to mind. But not all hackers are malicious. Some of them want to solve problems. Case in point: FarmHack.
FarmHack was started to create real-world, easily replicable, low-cost solutions to America's farmers, and to create a community of farmers, designers, fabricators and documenters that could design, vet, test and provide technical specifications for each proposed solution to a given agricultural problem.
Recently, a group of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students and local farmers gathered for the first Ocean State FarmHack. Watch the video here.
FarmHack, sponsored by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, offers farmers the opportunity to collaborate with industrial designers and fabricators of metal, wood and plastic on innovations envisioned to increase the sustainability and efficiency of small farms.
In large part, mainstream agricultural research and development only provides farmers with petro-chemical solutions — whether through diesel-burning machinery or petroleum-derived fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These top-down solutions seldom work within the ethics or scales of New England family owned farms.
For many generations, small farmers have created their own tools and solutions and have shared them through word of mouth and organizations like the Grange network, but the digital age has given our nation’s growers and raisers a much larger and more immediate network to work within. FarmHack seeks to take advantage of that network, colloquially known as the interwebs, to disperse these solutions to small farms and farmers worldwide.
Let’s take a walk through the FarmHack process.
A farmer has a problem. Let’s say his or her CSA program has tripled its yearly subscriptions. Seeding beds and fields by hand has become too time consuming and labor-intensive to keep up with the current demand. The farmer posts his problem to the FarmHack website. “I need a faster way to seed my fields.”
Enter the designers. Assuming that multiple designers will take on the problem, multiple solutions will be proposed. For arguments sake, let’s say that two solutions are proposed for this particular problem — a retrofitted bicycle with a series of differentials and an attached dibbler and seed dropper, and a gas-powered lawnmower modified in the same way.
The designs are then passed on to the fabricators and engineers.
Both solutions seem viable, so two fabricators begin building the two different machines. The buildout, optimally, is documented by the fabricator or another party. This documentation could range from a series of photos, video documentation or, in a best-case scenario, full three-dimensional computer assisted design (CAD) renditions and technical specs. Again, all documentation is uploaded to the FarmHack website. This process of recording the buildout process is a key component of FarmHack, because without it, the solutions wouldn't be transferrable on a large scale to other farmers with the same need. When the machines are completed, they are given to the farmer to test for real-world applicability.
Back to the farmer. He or she decides that, in order to reduce the farm’s petro-dependency, the pedal-powered solution is the right one and begins to use the equipment on the farm. That’s not to say the retrofitted gas mower isn't also a viable option, and may very well work for a larger farm, so the solution resides in perpetuity on the Internet. Issues that the farmer, or end-user, may have with the current solution can then be transferred back to the designers and fabricators for tweaking.
FarmHack’s guiding principles are to foster cooperative innovation by farmers to address their farming challenges; to collaborate with allies such as designers and engineers; to focus on research and development driven by the needs and insights of sustainable farmers; to bring farmers and allies together; and, most importantly, to encourage idea sharing.
Given the multitude of small and urban farms in Rhode Island, and the number of local farmers who are looking for sustainable solutions to various issues, one can expect that the first Ocean State FarmHack, held March 10 and 11 at RISD, won’t be the last.