In a slight twist on the usual format for sessions at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference, Benjamin Shute described the Farm Hack project and then session participants divided into three groups to brainstorm ideas or desires for innovations on the farm.
Shute, a vegetable and egg CSA farmer at Hearty Roots Farm in Tivoli, New York, co-founded and is a board member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, which encourages local affinity groups to help each other – with, for example, cooperative grain buying in Shute’s area.
The coalition also works on policy, and it wanted a technical/training focus as well that would provide new avenues for farmers to help one another.
“Whenever I go to someone else’s farm, I learn something that made it worth the trip to go there; I bring back some little technique or big tool innovation,” said Shute.
In Shute’s Hudson Valley community, the young farmer group met to erect a hoophouse on one farmer’s land so that people without experience could learn to do that. Another work day involved converting a tractor to electric power.
A couple of years ago, the coalition also came up with Farm Hack (www.farmhack.net) and events that join farmers with one another and with allies – engineers, architects and designers who might contribute to the sustainable farms movement. Farmhack.net is somewhat like Farm Show magazine (www.farmshow.com) but without a print publication, and all information is free and open-source.
On farmhack.net people can discuss ideas in forums about tools and techniques; can post events; and can participate in a community-contributed and -edited wiki site called the tool section. The latter notes a tool, such as an oat dehuller, that was made years ago but is no longer available for small-scale operations. The design is reverse engineered and those plans are posted. Or, once a new tool has been designed and tested, it can be profiled on the wiki, with links for parts.
People can subscribe to a particular Farm Hack forum, thread or wiki tool and receive emails when new information is posted.
A popular post, for example, shows how to use about $5 in parts to modify the brassica plate of an Earthway seeder so that it doesn’t grind up brassica seeds.
As another example, New Hampshire farmer Dorn Cox grows sunflowers for oil and built a biodiesel processing trailer that can be brought from farm to farm. Once he posts the design on the wiki, others can contribute their ideas, questions or problems related to it.
Two Productive Events
At an MIT event held before the website was up, people brainstormed a sustainable cranberry bog, self-flushing irrigation valve, bicycle tractor, and cheap Lely tines, built on the spot using old bicycle spokes and iron pipe to make 1-foot modular tine rakes that can be bolted onto a sweeps cultivator.
At another event, participants first toured Tuckaway Farm in New Hampshire and then went to a nearby Grange Hall, where they planned the Farm Hack wiki, discussed small scale grain processing and developed Arduino-controlled farm tools.
Shute and electronics expert Louis Thiery and programmer R. J. Steinert developed Fido, a farmer-built wireless greenhouse monitor and alarm system consisting of a small circuit board called an Arduino that receives a signal – e.g., temperature from a thermostat – processes that and sends an alert under certain conditions. A small SARE grant helped develop and program the prototype.
Fido sits in a greenhouse, attached to a pay-as-you-go cell phone with a $5 per month text messaging plan. Fido will text Shute if his greenhouse is too hot or cold, saving him the worry, time and cost of driving to the greenhouse to check it. He can also program Fido to text him the temperature in the greenhouse at any given time increment. It also texts him if the power goes out, which means the fans aren’t running. It logs temperature data, which can be downloaded via a USB cable for every minute for the whole season. Shute built his Fido in a couple of hours for $125 using parts easily obtained online; a tutorial is on Farm Hack.
Arduino is a $30, easily programmed microcontroller available online and at Radio Shack. It runs off a wall socket or battery and can be programmed by connecting it to a laptop with a USB cable and using code published on Farm Hack.
This sensor could process soil moisture content, light conditions, control irrigation valves or fans, or open and close chicken house doors. It could ring an alarm that you could hear in the field. One farmer uses it to triangulate from three places in a field to locate cows, which have RFID chips in their collars. When cows are ready to calf, they often separate from the rest of the group – so the sensor lets farmers know if a cow may be ready to calf.
In addition to helping farmers, Farm Hack may create opportunities for local manufacturers. Thiery has started a small business called Apitronics – Field Ready Hardware and Services, creating a custom board so that people don’t have to buy an Arduino and solder it themselves.
During the discussion, one participant suggested developing a cheaper Coolbot.
Another described his drill-powered drip tape rewinder: a threaded rod on a plywood base with a nut on the rod. He attaches a drill to the nut to wind up the tape, freeing his hands so that he can clean the tape with a cloth as it is wound.
Another said he staples one end of drip tape to an old electrical cable spool held by a bar on sawhorses, and rewinds the tape by hand. Another runs a 2-foot-long piece of 2-inch PVC conduit between two wooden rounds. A 1/2-inch piece of threaded iron pipe runs through the PVC pipe and is connected to a crank (an iron pipe with an elbow) on one end, so the drip tape can be cranked onto the homemade spool, which sits on a unit with wheels. The wooden rounds and iron pipe are removable so that the tape is held on the PVC pipe over winter. One participant suggested that the mechanism that winds up a vacuum cleaner cord might be useful; another mentioned hose reels. Some people mount their wind-up mechanisms on garden carts so that they’re moveable.
Prentice Grassi of Village Farm in Freedom, Maine, talked about growing microgreens in flats. For more efficient harvesting, he bought a 30-inch-long replacement blade for a Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ greens harvester and put a wooden handle on it. Jack Kertesz suggested using a hair dryer to then blow the greens into a bucket.
Another participant said he heard of someone who used a men’s hair cutter to cut microgreens; others suggested trying electric or battery operated carving knives.
In an aside, Grassi said he stores potatoes in a nearby, privately owned, unused cemetery crypt.
Bill Whitman described converting his garden cart so that it rolls on four wheels by placing two lawnmower wheels through a rod at the front of the cart; later he replaced the lawnmower wheels with swivel wheels from a wheelchair so that the cart pivots.
Whitman also described a 12- by 32-foot plastic greenhouse he built, using $80 for PVC pipe and $80 for greenhouse plastic – not for use in winter or under hurricane conditions, but good enough to extend the growing season.
When Farmer to Farmer session participants divided into three groups, they discussed ideas for a human-powered basket weeder; a push-powered rotating dibbler with interchangeable spacing (Kertesz said Eliot Coleman has plans for this); and plastic mulch with pre-marked spots for plant spacing.
Lisa Turner said she puts a C-clamp on a bed shaper to make a transplant furrow. Another participant suggested using an old pressure tank with a steel rod welded through it so that it hangs off the back of a bed shaper at two points (or a push version is possible); nuts welded on the tank could dibble the planting holes.
Kertesz asked if two cordless weed whackers could do the same job as a Regi weeder. Dennis Fisher said the Weed Master that UMaine’s Eric Gallant has been demonstrating does something like that.
Kertesz told participants about the Belfast Metalworkers Cooperative (http://metalworkerscooperative.weebly.com/), a potential resource or model for making some of the tools envisioned.
One participant wanted a human-powered tool, lighter than a Farmall Cub, using side-by-side recumbent bicycles with a tool bar connecting them, for hilling, harrowing, transplanting and weeding. Powering two bicycles may create a labor issue, another participant noted.
Whitman said similar rail cycles exist – square frames that two to four people pedal. Putting spikes in the wheels could help break up compaction, he suggested.
A Farmall AV-type tractor, possibly made from aluminum to minimize soil compaction, was suggested.
Another grower said she’d like a cheap rock picker to remove rocks from about 6 acres of field. Kertesz noted a device used to gather acorns or larger nuts might work; another suggested a potato digger.
Some participants mentioned Colin Caissie of Whitefield (firstname.lastname@example.org, 549-3338), who custom builds basket weeders, root washers, and modifies and repairs existing cultivation and irrigation equipment for small farmers.
One grower wants a plastic or plywood canopy for a tractor; another said a metal canopy vibrated so much that it was too loud.
Some participants brainstormed about capturing water shedding off high tunnels for irrigating without using electricity. A gutter or flashing on a hip board could direct water to collection barrels or buckets and from there the water could be gravity fed or pumped with a small solar-powered pump. Wash station water could also be captured for irrigation.
Whitman said that he and Kertesz will coordinate a new “Ingenuity Area” at the Common Ground Country Fair, where people who apply to the area can share innovative ideas. They hope to have people from Farm Show magazine there; and Kertesz noted that 28 years of Farm Show magazine are available on CD. Lindsey Books, which specializes in 19th century machine tools books and on alternative energy and farm machinery books, is another potential exhibitor. Whitman said people could also send photos or links to online videos to share. For more information, contact Whitman at email@example.com or 207-402-0841.
– J E