by Holly Black
New entrants to farming in Britain are often faced with a long list of challenges before they even put their wellies on. Defra’s 2013 report, Future of Farming Review, details a vast array of barriers faced by new entrants to farming, and highlights the shocking figure that only 8% of British farmers are first generation.
Across the pond in the United States, a different phenomenon is occurring: the arrival of the Greenhorns. In farming terms, a greenhorn is a novice or new entrant into agriculture, and this grass-roots group aims to help them. The Greenhorns have been making waves with their 2014 documentary on young farmers, and they are helping to change the landscape of field-to-fork farming by using technology to organise and up-skill new farmers. Recently, the Greenhorns have developed a specific tool to help connect the diaspora of new farmers spread across the United States – it’s called the ‘Farm Hack’, and it has now arrived in the UK.
What’s a ‘Farm Hack’?
‘Farm Hack’ is a concept coined by the Greenhorns. Think ‘i-fixit’ combined with Wikipedia. Lots of problems – and lots of solutions – all on an open-source, easily accessible platform that allows members to interact, debate and build on each other’s ideas. Although the term ‘hack’ evokes images of computers with Matrix-style numbers flashing across the screen and a virus eating your computer from the inside out, it actually has myriad meanings. These range from the ability to cope successfully with something to breaking up the surface of soil. In recent years hack has also come to mean a congregation of people (either online or offline) aiming to take action or work together to solve a problem.
Taking action and problem solving is exactly what occurred on a sunny spring day last month at Ruskin Mill in Gloucestershire at an event organised by the Landworkers’ Alliance. A group of farmers – some new entrants, some old hands – gathered together to find solutions to their shared problems. From Fife to Devon and Norwich to Pembrokeshire, farmers and those with technical expertise travelled from far and wide to share their knowledge and see how they could help one another address a wide range of issues faced on the farm.
UK Farm Hack #1
The Farm Hack was launched by Severine von Tscharner Flemming, the founder of the Greenhorns, with guests of honour L’Atelier Paysan, an innovative group of French farmers, that are reclaiming farming knowledge. The Farm Hack got off to a flying start, with the attentive attendees ready to soak in the energetic atmosphere. The highlight of the morning’s demonstrations was a bicycle-powered mill from Fergus Walker and the Fife Diet. Coined the ‘People Powered Flour Mill’, it was an ingenious box that looked like a red rocket, and it ground wheat into flour at the turn of a pedal. The afternoon saw a host of inspiring workshops, covering compost tea preparation, 3D printing and how to set up food hubs with the Open Food Network. Alongside all this were welding, blacksmithing and green wood-working drop-in sessions.
The second day felt like the crux of the event. It culminated in an extremely productive Open Space session that identified projects for collaboration, with a short period devoted to the development of these projects. The Open Space session allowed attendees to get stuck into what they really came for – exploring their ideas, finding solutions and offering help to others. Suggestions were made for regional working groups to skill share and to create training and barter systems, as well as tapping into expertise outside of farming from engineers, CAD experts, coders, academics and architects. These other networks provided an alternative perspective on solving farming problems by framing the issues differently. For example, a blacksmith may have the expertise to fix a broken tool, but an engineer may suggest a different tool with a new shape or a different attachment to do the job better. It was a team effort – and if you didn’t know the answer, there was almost always someone in the room who did!
Is technology the solution?
Technology is often seen as the golden ticket to problem solving. But driverless tractors, drones and robots are not necessarily the answer (despite what the Daily Mail may want you to think). Instead, we need problem-solving tools that can make a real difference in the hour you have at the end of the day when you choose either to sit at the computer or water the tomatoes. The introduction of organisational tools such as Farm at Hand, Trello and the Farmhack wiki could potentially change the face of farming. Farmbrite is designed for record keeping and is mobile enabled so it is accessible out in the field. The Open Food Network and Farmdrop support small-scale farmers by connecting customers directly with producers in their local area. And there is Buckybox, an organisational platform designed specifically for community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects – my local grower at CSA Sims Hill Shared Harvest was raving about it over the seed beds a few mornings ago. These are tools that allow CSAs to manage their members without ever seeing each other face to face.
One of the best ideas of the day was to invite older and more established farmers to share their expertise to help find better working systems. Meeting in real life rather than by email meant ideas could flow more freely, connections could be made and interests shared. Farmers need support through shared best practice as well as from new developments in the field. The wisdom imparted from established farmers who have seen it all before is incredibly valuable. Once this group of farmers got going, the ideas were flowing faster than Severine could note them down – a sign that a network of farmers, old and new, focused on solutions and assisted by technological tools is just what the future of farming might look like.
Photograph: Steph French