Community as Process Series, Installment 3 – Documentation Research Guide Update

In past posts we’ve introduced our plans to develop a how-to guide to producing documentation of farm tools. Although much discussion in the Farm Hack forums is already about documentation, we don’t often talk as a community about the nitty gritty and lived experience of being a documenter. Talking to community members about their approaches, methods, and challenges is the starting point for articulating the Farm Hack methodology of documentation.

As part of the guide’s iterative development, we’ll be posting summaries of info-gathering conversations in the coming weeks. This post is a summary of conversation with Tim Cooke.

Farm Hack Documentation Guide: Research Conversations- Tim Cooke, 1/20/16                                 

Tim has been a Farm Hack community member for over three years. During that time, and for years before he first got involved with Farm Hack, he has been working on a tool called the Culticycle, “A pedal powered tractor for cultivation and seeding, built from readily available lawn tractor, ATV, and bicycle parts.” I met with Tim in person to discuss his approach to documentation. 

The story of the Culticycle and its evolution spans the course of Tim’s entire life. This shows something important, that I’ll be eager to explore further with other interviewees- just how deeply personal tool design+development can be. Even as documentation methods become standardized, they still have to accommodate and enrich the preferences and idiosyncracies of the tool creator.

Origins of the Culticycle

In 1990 Tim was a crew leader at a farm in Vermont. He experienced the discontents of working with tractors. The 7-year-old son of the owner was wondering what horsepower meant and after some discussion the two agreed that they could probably pull a basket weeder by themselves, since it looked like it didn’t even need a tractor to pull it. The idea stuck with Tim. 18 years later he made the first Culticycle build; in the intervening years Tim kept thinking about the potential of human-powered tools. As shown by the diagram below, which illustrates the evolution of the Culticycle, four foundational “roots” contributed to the tool concept during these years. Tim kept getting injured from heavy tractor use; he tinkered with the human-powered Valley Oak Wheel Hoe, making wider and wider implements for it. Finally, he encountered documentation of a tool, the Flex-tine cultivator, that contributed to Tim’s own designs. Both the Flex-tine cultivator and its documentation were inspirations.

Documentation of v. 1-8 (sketches)
Growing up in an old farmhouse, Tim learned carpentry at an early age. He’d had years of experience sketching build designs by the time he started iterating on the Culticycle. Between 2008 and 2012 he relied mainly on sketches to record and share his thinking, supplementing them with a few photographs. (The sketches still exist in hard copy in Tim’s house.)

Documentation of v. 9 onwards (photo and video)

Someone from MOFGA saw a photo of the Culticycle on Bikes not Bombs’ site and was taken by it. He contacted Tim and suggested that Tim share his work on the Culticycle with Farm Hack.

Tim emphasizes that the quality and specificity of the photo helped account for this connection. The detail in it is revealing: the photographer moved with the machine so that the soil would be captured in motion slipping over the shovels, a much more appealing shot than a still photo.

The most useful resources Tim has drawn on in recent years are documentation produced by Allen Dong, the creator of the Flex-tine cultivator linked to above, and access to the Web, which he uses to search for prices of parts. It’s a fundamental part of Tim’s iterative design process.

The Culticycle’s page on Farm Hack provides a flavor of the sort of documentation Tim now produces, which includes pictures (that Tim takes) and video (that his son shoots). Basic point-and-shoot cameras suffice. He tries to document every part and every step in the build process with photographs.

Tim continues to weigh different options for combining photographs with text. Combining the two makes documentation richer than if it were to consist of either images or text alone. There are two relevant sets of questions:

  1. How, technically, to produce the desired output? i.e., what medium or program best suits Tim’s purpose- and, *just as importantly,* doesn’t present an unduly steep learning curve?
  2. How, conceptually, to produce the right pairings of images and text so as to be most accessible and useful for users?

Tim’s intuition, along with some Web browsing, at first led him to use Microsoft Paint to annotate photographs by inserting text boxes onto them. At a certain point he transitioned to a text-heavier approach that involves creating text documents with embedded photographs.

 

 

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