Granite Geek: Farmhack Crowdsources Solutions For Farmers

May 5, 2015

In this high-tech information age, farming equipment is becoming more computerized, which means it’s becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to fix their own tools. Enter Farmhack.org, a New-Hampshire based website that’s tilling the Internet for solutions to tricky farm problems. David Brooks, author of the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.

So how does Farmhack work?

This was started as an online site for people to share ideas, saying, "Hey, listen, I want to fix my tractor, but I can’t. Does anyone have any suggestions?" And it’s kind of grown from there. Now it’s involved in some gatherings. It’s all over the country and there are some aspects of it internationally as well.

Give us an example of how it works.

If you go to Farmhack.org, it’s a fairly simple website—in fact, they’re in the process of trying to upgrade it a bit. But there’s a section called "Tools." And you click on the section called "Tools" and it’s a wiki, which means anyone can start and edit items. And there are people who put up their own personal ideas or things they’ve built or done. I talked to Dorn Cox, who’s from Tuckaway Farm in Lee. He’s one of the founders and the public face of it. And the one he’s most excited about is the custom 3D printable Jang Seed Roller. Basically they’re little wheels that go on a device that distributes seeds evenly along a row instead of trying to put each one in by hand, which is what I do in my garden. And these are little wheels that are a part of it. I don’t know if they brake a lot, but they tend to be a problem, and they aren’t always designed in ways that people want to use them.

So this person who’s on the site decided, "Hey, I can do better," and got the specs and twiddled with it, created a Computer Aided Design file, uploaded it, so you can 3D print other versions of them. And Dorn Cox was really excited about this because this is exactly the way Farmhack is supposed to work.

And it seems like there are a lot of fascinating things you can do with the tools section. There’s a planting section, a soil section, a section for livestock management. The list goes on.

And there’s Fido, the temperature alarm that sends text messages! It’s really cool stuff, even for folks like me who have nothing more than a small garden.

So does this mean farmers nationwide are going to start reprogramming the computers in their tractors?

This is very much aimed at the small farmer and the local food movement, at the kind of farmer that frankly has reappeared din New Hampshire and New England in the past five, ten, 15 years. So it sort of goes hand in hand with the local food movement. I mean, nobody who has 5,000 acres in Iowa is going to be doing this. But the people who have 5,000 acres in Iowa are facing the issue as well because, the example I mentioned in my column, John Deere, which is the world’s largest maker of agricultural equipment, has so much computerized equipment in its tractors now that it filed a notice with the copyright office that farmers don’t really own the tractors anymore. They have an implied license for their operation.

Kind of like how people own video games or music.

Exactly. But it’s one thing to have that with a copy of “Call of Duty,” and another for something you spent a million dollars on.

So is there a wiki posted now to help people unlock their tractors in the way that folks unlock their iPhones?

I have not seen it. If it’s there, it’s hidden well, because it’s extremely illegal.

I’m sure John Deere would have a problem with that.

And they have lawyers, whereas when you’re designing Fido the text-messaging planting app, nobody’s going to send a lawyer after you.

So farmers are sharing the things they’ve learned. This isn’t a new thing. Farmers were doing this back in 1918.

This is what Dorn Cox was telling me about. He has a copy on his desk, he says, of the 1918 Encyclopedia of Practical Farm Knowledge, published by Sears Roebuck. Basically it was a bunch of essays by farmers saying, “Hey, you can do this, you can do that,” which is very much the Farmhack idea.