January 15, 2020

Farmers as Hackers

In the era of the Internet and artificial intelligence, the farmer, an old school knowledge professional, is adapting by becoming a hacker.

Farmers as Hackers

Fostering Technological Heresy in Agriculture

The agricultural industry sits in a unique position: we depend upon it to eat, yet most people are distant from it (living in cities), and its origins (and often peoples perceptions of it) are ancient. As a result it may be easier to find the critical distance and perspective necessary to understand how technology and automation are impacting agriculture, and apply those insights to the rest of society.

In particular the archetype of the farmer is a great example of the evolution of the knowledge professional and entrepreneur. Successful farmers are constantly learning, adapting, iterating, experimenting, and engaging their community and the marketplace at large.

In the era of the Internet and artificial intelligence, the farmer, an old school knowledge professional, is adapting by becoming a hacker.

Agriculture has always depended upon tools and knowledge, technology and data. The evolution of these tools, has not only changed farming, but also the farmer, and their relationship with the world.

Depending upon what part of agriculture they were engaged in, farmers learned carpentry, so as to build and repair structures or fencing. They learned mechanical repair, to build, use, and maintain machines. They also learned biology and chemistry to raise and maintain livestock and crops.

Now that we live and work with computers, which enable automation, farmers are learning how to hack, how to repair, and how to use, protect, and analyze their new crops: the data they generate.

At least where that is possible. While the desire to hack is out there, hacking as a concept has faced criminalization. We’ve allowed law enforcement and corporate media to synonymize hacking (i.e. unauthorized learning) with criminality. As a result a lot of people do not realize that hacking is a philosophy or method and not necessarily a criminal act.

Instead what people instinctively do, when not encouraged or permitted to hack, is that they revert to versions of technology that are tried and trusted, that they know will work and that they can repair.

I happen to own a 40 year old tractor and enjoy having discussions with people about the only vehicle I’ve owned that is worth more now than when it was first built. It’s not that large, at 55hp, but it throws snow across fields and can move dirt and materials with the best of them.

This story about old tractors increasing in value, because they’re easy to repair and adapt, has resonated with the technology world. It evokes a problem we see with all of our technology: the combination of planned obsolescence and imposed limitations.

Rather than make new features or tools retroactive, the companies want farmers to be held captive to upgrades and hostile licensing. Not to mention that only authorized technicians can make repairs or modifications.

The original source for this story, that Vice and others picked up, is worth reading.

The industry sees farmers as serfs subject to their software terms, whereas farmers are starting to see themselves as hackers who have the right to repair, modify, and use their equipment as they see fit.

Rather it is the policies and companies that prevent farmers from doing what they wish with the equipment they spend a small fortune on.

Just to provide some context, high end tractors cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and top of the line combines can be as much as a million dollars.

These are significant capital outlays, and it is ludicrous to think that farmers face further limitations on what they can do to these machines after spending that kind of money.

Some of theses initial reports about tractor hacking that came out a few years ago have been fantastic fodder for politicians and campaigns that seek a right to repair policy.

Elizabeth Warren was one of the first Presidential candidates to actively promote and campaign for the right to repair.

Although she’s not alone as Bernie Sanders and many other politicians from all levels of government have supported similar initiatives.

No significant right to repair legislation that includes provisions for farm equipment have been passed, although Massachusetts did pass legislation that focused on automobiles, which is a start.

Yet hacking is not just about modification or repair, it also involves innovation. Like converting an older tractor into an autonomous vehicle!?

Matt Reimer is a Manitoba based farmer and robotics hacker. He generated a fair bit of interest and showcased a few solutions a few years ago, but has not recently been active. I sent him an email hoping to do an interview.

In the meantime here’s more from Matt’s youtube channel

There are also initiatives like farmhack.org that seek to promote open source tools and methods among farmers. As well as Open Source Ecology which aspires to create a wide range of open source hardware and machinery including an open source tractor. Expect a future issue looking deeper into these initiatives.

Similarly the role of data and the farmer’s relationship with data will be another subject we’ll explore. For example if the data is generated from a farmer’s lands or livestock, using the farmers equipment, should they not be the owner of that data? Tragically not always, and in some cases, only because the farmer didn’t realize the value of that data or have the means to organize and protect it themselves.

Another impact that technology is having on agriculture is a move towards transparency. Once surveillance, data collection, and analytics are introduced to a farm, there will be growing pressure to share that data and upload that data into shared supply chains that audit the practices used to produce the crops or livestock. Once buyers know that data exists they’ll want to use it. The consumer may as well.

How much do you know about how your food is produced? Would you want to know, or do you prefer the bliss of ignorance? Do you have any contact with farmers, or people in the agricultural sector? Have you ever thought of or tried to repair your own technology?

I bought a busted snowblower in the fall, that once repaired, using the aid of YouTube, became a valuable tool for me. Similarly I recently bought a busted ATV that with YouTube’s guidance I am currently repairing. Sadly there’s not much on YouTube to help with the maintenance of my 40 year old tractor, but perhaps that will change as younger YouTube farmers choose to use and repair these older models.

Ottawa Valley Smart Farms