From the soil to the circuit: My experiences at FarmHackNL

– by Rowland Marshall

This time tomorrow I’ll be sitting on a high speed train hurtling through the countryside from Amsterdam to Paris.  It’s about three hours from there to my current home in the French capital, which itself is a further 16,547km away from my place of birth in Brisbane, Australia.  A thin pane of glass will separate my body, travelling through space at 300km/hr, from those of the cattle standing still in the fields adjacent to the tracks of the Thalys TGV.  But that is tomorrow, and today it is I who am in the field, standing still in the breeze beside a row of potatoes as the rest of the earth takes its turn to move.

The technology-rich world of high-speed rail seems miles apart from the seemingly stationary world of fields and crops, and yet today it is the train that feels out-dated, for flying just a few metres above me is a drone gracefully turning laps above the potatoes like an olympic athlete turns laps in a swimming pool.  In a few short moments the drone will land all by itself, and a stream of data will flow from its belly and into my computer, and it is then that my work will begin.

…we share a common passion for [technology], agriculture and the environment, and we’d like to see how we can use our skills to have a positive impact.

I am here in the Onstwedde region of the Netherlands on the farm of Nanne Sterenborg, taking part in the second weekend of FarmHackNL.  There are about 30 of us all together – farmers, business persons, geo-hydraulogists, geo-spacial scientists, programmers, engineers and more; all sitting in one of the more unconventional hacker spaces I’ve experienced to date.  There are tools and drums of farm chemicals against one wall, a truck parked in the corner, and a dust-encrusted wash station by the door.  Amidst all this, our inflatable couches, robots and glowing computer screens look a little out of place.  We’ve come here from all manner of towns and backgrounds because we share a common passion for agriculture and the environment, and we’d like to see how we can use our skills to have a positive impact.  Each person tells a different story – for my part I’m an electronic/software engineer-turned-medical designer-turned-drone research project manager-turned-French MBA graduate (phew!) with a love for the land that I inherited from my parents and the many aunts, uncles and cousins who have hosted my awkward city-dwelling self over the years on their farms around the Australian outback.  My reasons for being here are twofold – (i) the first being to escape the dirty streets of Paris for the cleaner air and dirt of the countryside again; and (ii), to see if I can humbly offer my skills in exchange for the further enrichment of my understanding of agriculture, food security, and the role of technology in the environment.

The weekend began with a brief presentation of the farm itself by Nanne Sterenborg, followed by an overview of the two days ahead from the FarmHackNL team.  The idea is simply to come together over the proceeding 36 hours to try to solve as many problems on the farm as we can.  This weekend’s theme centres on data, and in advance we have been provided with a mixture of satellite and drone imagery to play with in addition to the live data collected on the day.  The group broke into several different teams – one looks at trying to automatically identify pests on the crops from digital images; another looks to improve the communication between analysis and farm equipment; whilst others are improving the way farmers can use the multitude of data to better manage their fields.  Nanne bounces between the teams, smiling the whole time, answering our questions and listening to our views on where the various technologies are headed in the future.  This continues through the night and early into the morning, with the FarmHackNL team in the background providing us with a steady flow of coffee, support and encouragement.

By early this morning, great progress has been made.  One team has already demonstrated a new improvement for crop spraying by way of a late night tractor-test, and others have built early prototypes of their own ideas.   It is now late afternoon on the second day, and our ideas have all been formerly presented to the whole group, with awards going to the two teams with the best results, and the “open source” award for contribution of code and ideas to the farm hack community.  The weekend is drawing to a close, and as we begin to pack up we are laughing and exchanging contact details in order to continue the conversations and work down the line.

There’s a common misconception held about farmers that suggests they are part of a backwards industry that drags at the heels of technological advancement.  In my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth.  On any given day a farmer is a meteorologist, chemist, mechanic, scientist, businessperson and so much more; and to this polymathic existence will soon be added roboticist and programmer.  Gert, the son of Nanne, is the very embodiment of the next-wave agriculturalist (who, by the way, can also add “pilot” to the skills list). Part farmer, part programmer, he has drifted from team to team throughout the weekend, offering his unique perspective whilst at the same time listening to the expertise of the seasoned technologists amongst us.  With the mounting need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 whilst at the same time reducing the impact on the environment, the role of robotics and artificial intelligence in the agriculture and environmental industries is only going to intensify.  As my good friend Jaymis always says, I love living in the future, and it is great to meet someone like Gert who is leading the charge.

For too long the vast majority of the tech industry has operated on a “push” principle

At the same time, there is still a long way to go to bridge the current gap between the soil and the circuit.  I firmly believe that no one person can be a master of all domains,  and that each is capable of contributing their part to the whole.  For too long the vast majority of the tech industry has operated on a “push” principle where they have forced the extolled virtues of their products onto the customer, rather than employing a “pull” principle where the customer extracts the solution they need out of the opportunities the industry can provide.   In the past this has lead to death-by-features, over promising, and disappointment.  As a technology provider and an advocate for my industries, I firmly believe that it’s a great thing to understand the customer, but it’s a beautiful dance when you understand each other.  Hack events like this provide a great opportunity for this interaction, and that’s why you’ll continue to find me “in the field”; be it an actual field of potatoes, a rainforest, a construction site, or even a train station; rather than just behind a desk thinking I know what’s best.

There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned yet – as the only foreigner in the room this weekend I find myself swimming in a pool of Dutch speakers who graciously tic-tac between languages in order to make sure I am included and kept up to speed as the weekend progresses.  I am extremely grateful for their kindness and patience.   Despite getting lost from time to time, one thing has quickly become clear to me – you don’t need to speak the same language to understand passion, and that, at the end of the day, is what FarmHackNL has been all about.

The author would like to particularly thank Anne Bruinsma, Linda Haartsen & Simeon Nedkov of FarmHackNL; and the entire Sterenborg Family.  Dank u wel!

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