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Farmers + Engineers = Farm Hack

Clare Roth
Harvest Public Media

“Hack” isn’t a word usually associated with agriculture, but that might be starting to change.

A group of small farmers across the country has started to come together to pool their ideas for solutions to small-farming challenges, just like computer hackers working together to solve computer issues. They call it Farm Hack.

Farm Hack brings together farmers and engineers, agriculture and technology. The group wants to create more efficient sustainable small farms. The National Young Farmers Coalition organized the first Midwestern Farm Hack in late June at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

While past Farm Hacks have been exclusively on the East Coast, Farm Hack Iowa co-director Grant Schultz says Farm Hack fits in the Midwest.

“Iowa’s got a really great land resource that’s mainly utilized by large scale ag, but there’s a quickly growing movement of small scale farmers and they don’t necessarily have the kinship, the community,” Schultz said.

Schultz says while large-scale farms use big machines in their fields for one or two crops, small-scale farms with many types of crops need more than one kind of machine and require more cost-effective solutions. Farm hack wants to find them.

While the two-day gathering includes farm tours and presentations about sustainable on-farm energy, the collaborative problem-solving process is the core ingredient of Farm Hack. Small-scale farmers bring in problems, the participants vote on which ones to tackle and then small groups rush to come up with solutions in two days. Afterwards, they’re posted to an online forum where anyone can collaborate on the idea.

Carolyn Scherf, a 21-year-old farmhand, was looking for a better way to pick berries. Her group designed a pedal-powered quadracycle that farmers can use to pick berries and pull weeds simultaneously.

Scherf says she enjoys the collaboration, but isn’t making Farm Hack effective isn’t easy.

 “People want to do different things and to get people to focus on efficiency, which is a big problem in small-scale farming, was challenging,” Scherf said. “I don’t know if we really solved that problem.”

That’s why organizers say they want the conference to be a starting point, not a product. Ben Shute, founder of Farm Hack, says the goal is to go beyond these one-off meetings and build a stronger, widespread community of small-scale farmers.

“What we found is the conference is a great place to get an idea started and then most of the actual work ends up happening as these connections that are made at the event are continued using the online tools at Farmhack.net,” Shute said.

Scherf’s quadracycle idea is already on the web, ready for collaboration with other farmers across the country.  Another group has plans in the next week to make the first prototype of their solar-timed chicken coop.

As long as there are farmers, there will be farm issues that need solving. Organizers hope Farm Hack can be a novel approach for finding solutions.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like HarvestPublic Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

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