Hacking the Fields: Crowdsourcing DIY Tools for Sustainable Farming

In the brave new world of farm technology, communities are inventing new tools and cutting out Big Ag.

(David Jones/ Getty)

Oct 14, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

For some farmers, the fate of a tractor or combine can make or break an operation. But with their high price tag and narrow application, these massive tools don’t always have a place on smaller, diverse farms.

But a DIY weed-torching flamethrower? That just might be worth the time and money for mid-sized organic operations.

Louis Thiery, who tends a garden at his home in the Boston suburbs, is decidedly not in the market for a combine. But the engineering whiz has been working behind the scenes at farms all over the country, developing plans for tools that small farmers really need through a site called Farm Hack.

The website seeks to create solutions to farming problems that don't involve the what Farm Hack calls the "top-down chemical, capital and energy-intensive machines” of Big Ag. What Theiry and others in the Farm Hack community strive to invent are cheap, adapatable tools that make sense on small farms.

“What I get out of it is a personal satisfaction of building things that are for a good cause,” says Thiery, who lives in Somerville, MA. “I feel strongly about improving our agriculture system. A lot of farmers I meet through Farm Hack are farming the right way, and I want to support those kinds of farmers.”

Thiery has been applying his engineering and programming background to the Farm Hack community since 2011. Thiery, with the help of the Farm Hack community and technologies put forth by his predecessors in the field, has developed the Apitronics Wireless Platform that farmers are putting in their fields to monitor conditions like soil humidity and weather. A base station, or “hive,” releases digital “bees” that collect data that's sent via email or text message to the farmer. The app can help conserve vital resources, like water, or remind a farmer of the little things, like if he or she forgot to close the chicken coop door. Data is also tracked on a locally hosted web page, too, so the farmer can keep tabs on long-term trends in chicken-coop neglect and water usage alike.

Theiry's Apitroinics Wireless Platform is just one example of how the Farm Hack community believes they can invent or improve upon farm tools that can readily be applied to sustainable agricutlure. There are also plans for tools like a pedal-powered root crop washer, used to rinse root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. Or that flamethrower: A tractor attachment that uses a spider-like array of torches to weed rows of crops, avoiding the need to use pesticides.

How do they come up with this stuff? Open-source forums on the Farm Hack website crowdsource solutions for inventors and farmers seeking to build or improve a tool used on the farm. Groups of hackers and farmers also convene in person. An upcoming farm hack on Colorado’s West Slope will focus on drought planning, while the focus of a November farm hack in South Dakota focuses on “tools for beginning farmers.”

Sometimes, like in the case of Thiery, the hack turns into a business. Thiery recently raised almost $22,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to further develop and distribute the Apitronics Wireless Platform. He says the genius of Farm Hack is that it rejects the “one-size-fits-all” approach to farming technology.

“Each farm is idiosyncratic about its operations,” he says. “A root washer may be important in one CSA, and another CSA may not have that. Having this repository of tools is really powerful because it allows you to figure out what works for you.”

Yeah, we're going to need one of those flame-throwing weeders. Stat.