Open Sourcing our Food System With Farm Hack

At first glance, the maker movement might seem a world apart from the analog domain of soil, plants, and food. You can’t eat an Arduino after all. At least that’s what I thought.

While microcontrollers are indeed inedible, it’s exciting to see how makers are building devices and sharing technology that reaches into new areas that I thought stood outside a maker’s reach. Like food production.

Stereotypes of technophobe, straw-chewing farmers abound, but the truth is our food system is highly industrialized, mechanized, and computerized—overly so if you ask me. It’s also a largely closed, proprietary system that’s designed to keep the pesky public out. Strange, that something as fundamental to our existence as food would be largely hidden from view.

This system also makes it hard for new and young farmers to get into farming and to compete with big corporate farms when they do so. All that technology and R&D costs a lot of money.

Farm Hack is sticking a big wrench in the cogs of that system. Guided in equal parts by ideals of sustainability and open source, the nonprofit group has a developed a community of 20,000 members that develops, shares, tweaks, and hacks tools that make farming and food production accessible to all.

“There’s a demand for a different kind of agriculture,” says Dorn Cox, Farm Hack co-founder and president of the board of directors. “But the solutions are not going to come from the industry that is promoting the status quo.”

There is demand for organic and chemical free produce, he says, but also for a safer, and more transparent food system. The way that will happen is through open source software and hardware, he says.

A pedal-powered compost chipper at Farm Hack’s exhibit at World Maker Faire New York last year.

The Farm Hack community has developed a range tools including a greenhouse monitoring system, weather stations, electric tractors, and aerial imagery devices that can monitor plant health down to the cellular level. Farm Hack co-founder Louis Thiery just launched a KickStarer campaign for Apitronics, a wireless (and waterproof) platform for environmental monitoring in the field.

What’s cool, Cox says, is how the Farm Hack community takes these designs and creates new ones. That can only happen with an open source system.

“If it were any other system that wound’t be possible,” he says. “It pushes innovation and makes things go faster.”

Farmers are the core of the Farm Hack community, but software developers, architects, and mechanical engineers are essential to the growth and vitality of the group, too. They need each other.

“We have a tremendous resource of people who are not famers,” he says.

And they’re looking for more. Why should non-farmers in urban areas care about Farm Hack? Well, we all gotta eat and once you see the value of open source systems and technology it only makes sense to apply it everywhere and that includes our food system. An open sourced food system produces benefits for all.

It’s interesting to imagine what our food system will look like in, say, 10 years as open source technology continues to ripple out across the farms and ranches where our food is produced. Currently, only big, well capitalized (and publicly subsidized) farms can afford fancy farm tech and they use it as a competitive advantage. But if open source technology levels the playing field, every farmer who wants it will have access to these tools and these big farms will just be big. And that may no longer be such an advantage.

Farm Hack will be exhibiting some of its projects at World Maker Faire New York Sept. 21-22. Dorn Cox and Louis Thiery will be speaking about Farm Hack’s work Sept. 21 at 3:30pm on the Make: Live Stage. 

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Stett is a senior editor at MAKE with abiding interest in food and drink, bicycles, woodworking, and environmentally sound human enterprises. He is the father of two young makers.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

Contact Stett with tips and story ideas on:

*Food *Sustainable/green design *Science *Young Makers *Action sports

View more articles by Stett Holbrook


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