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Green Acres Spotlight: Farm Hack’s Louis Thiery

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Farmers are and always have been incredibly crafty people, and the rise of open-source technology is creating a new generation of resourceful growers who use tech hacks to improve their operations. Farm Hack is one of the foremost online communities in this movement, and Louis Thiery knows all about it. He’s on the Farm Hack board and is the brilliant mind behind the Apitronics platform, “an open platform for long-range wireless sensing and automation.” Thiery will be speaking at the 17th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Green Acres, Saving the Planet One Bite at a Time, which will be held on Feb. 21-22 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center. He’s leading a session at our conference next month called “Open-Source Farming: Saving the Planet One Byte at a Time” that will cover how this technology can empower farmers and level the playing field for operations of all sizes.

Has the landscape changed to make tech like this more accessible? All the hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper. It’s cheaper for consumers to buy this stuff, but it’s also cheaper for developers and DIY people to play with this stuff. You no longer need hundreds of dollars worth of lab equipment. In the past couple of years hardware has gotten a lot cheaper to prototype with. There’s open-source hardware now.

In agriculture specifically there’s Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack, which I’m a part of. Farm Hack is less than three years old, and OpenSource Ecology is about the same age. The materials have gotten cheaper and the communities are getting stronger and stronger, and that’s making open source more accessible in general and to farmers.

Your background is in tech, so what draws you to farming? I was concerned with food when I was in college, especially when you’re coming from home-cooked meals to dorm food. That was when I started becoming a vegetarian, and I started thinking about where food was sourced from and what its implications were. It was kind of a moral question that was on my mind throughout college. I had some time after I graduated, so I did that WWOOF program out on a farm in Colorado. (Editor’s note: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it’s a super-cool program you can learn more about here.) I realized that, being an urbanite my whole life, I didn’t know a single thing about how food was grown, and I was morally concerned about how these things happen. I went there as a kid who’d graduated from college, I was kind of a techie, and it’s when I was there that I kind of discovered the state of electronics in agriculture. They don’t have $30,000 to invest in these kinds of electronics. The farmer I was working for didn’t really have anything, and the technology wasn’t really at the right price point for him. So that’s when I started playing in this space as a developer.

How tech-savvy do farmers need to be to take advantage of open-source technology? The short answer is less and less. Arduino is a good example of something that’s kind of lowered the barriers to entry, knowledge-wise, because it’s simplified a lot of the things that you need to know in using a microcontroller. A microcontroller is a very simple computer that’s low-power, and can do things like evaluate inputs. Any kind of really basic control system is really easy to do with this kind of stuff. It gets more complicated as you start wanting more and more precision, but it does allow you to create a device from scratch very cheaply. The first full prototype I built was with an Arduino, and it was basically a greenhouse alert system that was an Arduino and an off-the-shelf cell phone. I wired them together and programmed it to be an alert system. It’s for a greenhouse, so you just plug it in and you program it as a user with a text message telling it what kind of temperature bounds you want, and you tell it how often you want an update. It will send you a text message when something goes wrong, and if you want it to send you an update every six hours with the temperature it will do that too. That was the first full functional prototype I’d built and it was very empowering because it was a $130 kit. It took some assembly, but the functionality and the price were toppling everything else that was on the market. It’s why I started thinking that I should create a business that was making the new generation of electronics that would also enable people to tweak it for specific needs. That was the biggest thing I saw when I was looking through catalogs; they were each designed for something very specific. If you wanted something a little different, it wasn’t really possible. Especially on diversified farms, they’re all a little idiosyncratic, they all have something that’s really important to them but not 90 percent of other farms. Being able to do that little tweak might create a lot of value for them.

What are some common trends you’re seeing in open-source farming technology? Within electronics I’ve been seeing lots of aquaponics and hydroponics things; when you’re an electrical engineer, that kind of control system is very alluring. If you go on the internet you can see hundreds of different projects of people making more consumer-grade automation systems. You can have your own little aquaponic system in your living room. And then on the other side of the spectrum, the more common open-source innovations I’ve been seeing from farms themselves are more on the mechanical side. I’ve been seeing a lot of pedal-powered devices, especially within Farm Hack. There’s at least two or three guys making a lot of really cool pedal-powered applications like root washers. One of my friends, Rob Rock, has this flame weeder that he built. (Editor’s note: This photo of it, guys! ) It’s basically a big frame with a bike and you torch your weeds with it. Those are the two most common things I see, mechanical innovations from farmers and the techies nerding out. I’m trying to find a happy medium where I’m just making things that are very simple and might fit more with what the actual need is right now within farms. A basic alert system that can be tweaked still isn’t done properly yet.

[With Apritronics] I’m trying to create the internet of things for farms. I’m trying to make devices that not only give you a remote sensor reading or a remote control system, but where the Internet of things gets really interesting is when you start seeing what you can do when you network that intelligence. The use case I think of the most is a weather station 100 feet away from a greenhouse, and the greenhouse has its own sensors. Kinda using all that data from the weather station that gives you very good information about what’s happening outside the greenhouse, and if you have more sensors inside the greenhouse, you can build a model of a greenhouse from that. You can start physically modeling what the dynamics are. And with that information, and with the weather forecast that you now have because you have a weather station 100 feet away from your greenhouse, you can start doing some really cool optimization. I haven’t seen an off-the-shelf product where there’s incoming rain and you decide not to water. The best thing I’ve seen is something that says “Hey, the ground is really wet, maybe I won’t water.” That intelligence is not that complex code-wise, it’s just a question of making hardware that’s capable of communicating and that keeps itself charged.

Tell us a little bit about Farm Hack. The tagline of the community is “Open-source tools for resilient agriculture.” Resilient farmers who are diversified and are not doing thousands of acres of one crop are finding that none of the tools fit their scale. There’s complete grunt work of doing everything manually or you buy a $10,000-$20,000 machine to automate something for you. That’s where a tool like a root washer is a fantastic example. I think it’s $200 in parts, and it might take you a while to assemble it—one of the farmers in Farm Hack assembled one and I think he sold it for $400—so it’s this $400 device that can wash a couple hundred pounds of roots over an hour or two. You compare that to getting your hands wet and cold and scrubbing a bunch of potatoes—it’s a huge improvement. It can really help smaller farms compete better and not be completely void of technology. That’s what I hear from all the farmers I interact with, that finding the appropriate tool for the job they’re doing is really hard because they either can’t find it at all, or they find something that’s 50 or 60 years old from right before large-scale farming was beginning to take hold. “Scale-appropriate tools for resilient farming” would probably be an appropriate [Farm Hack] tagline. That’s really the biggest challenge, finding tools at the right scale and the right price point that makes sense for someone growing 30-40 vegetables a season.

As someone who likes to build things and make tools, it’s been very rewarding when something I’ve put together is able to make someone’s job a lot easier. That Arduino/cell-phone hack I told you about, not only did I see it help the guy I developed it for in the first place, but once I put it on the website other people were building it and other people actually modified it to do something else. One guy changed it to monitor an electric fence. That’s the main draw to open-sourcing things, for me. Not only can I allow people to copy it and use it as their own solution, but someone who has a problem that has 80 percent of the same features can use that 80 percent and only change it a little bit to do what they want it to do. I think that’s the most powerful thing about open hardware, that ability to tweak that product to do exactly what you want it to do.  I’d say I’m within the 10-20 percent of people who are building electronics. Most of the guys are doing mechanical things out of wood or welding. I wouldn’t say the core of the Farm Hack community is around electronics.

What do you think the future of open-source farming looks like? There’s a shortcoming in what we’re doing right now, which is “Here, I did something, here are the plans, now you can do it too.” [But] you have to learn a lot to be able to do it. Especially me doing electronics, it’s a pretty specialized skill set that most farmers don’t have. I think there’s going to be more companies that facilitate that

Like, Rob made his flame weeder, he could make a flame weeder kit that would make it much easier to source all the parts you would need to create that thing. Some of the hard technical parts might be assembled already, making it five times easier for someone to make the device. At the same time, because you’re selling it as a kit, you’re able to get some payoff for sharing that device and develop more of them. Seeing more companies that facilitate the adoption of open-source by either providing surrounding services or kits, and being suppliers and getting some kind of margin from it means they can reinvest that into more research and more tools. That would be the most sustainable way to do it because a lot of this stuff is hardware and it’s not as easy as code. It takes a lot more effort to document hardware and a lot more effort to replicate hardware, and it takes a lot more money and resources to do research on hardware. You can’t just get started with a $500 laptop and an internet connection. That’s why I think it’s important that more businesses facilitate the adoption of open source and find ways to use it as a business model.

I believe in the open hardware part. You share what’s going on, and that allows more collaborative development because now users aren’t just consumers. When you think of a farmer with a mechanical tool, they’re capable of modifying it a little bit. If they’re given enough information to do it they can do it really well as opposed to having to reverse engineer it. Doing open hardware as a business, you don’t have to open-source everything, you look at open-sourcing things that empower your users and help them collaborate with you.

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