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Farm Tech: how America’s farmers are going open-source

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farm siloThe traditional American farm, for most of our country’s history, has been mostly devoid of sleek machines and space-age chemicals, focusing instead on what can be accomplished with little more than bare hands. In the grand scheme of things, heavy equipment and space-age chemicals are a relatively recent development. While this classic image lovably hearkens back to our shared past and reminds us how essential farms and their fruitful output have been to the economy, there’s a growing indication that even the most experienced farmers will have to face: farming is gradually going high-tech.

These days, farmers are finding that their old-fashioned tools are no competition for the efficiency and ease of their high-tech counterparts. While this has plenty of obvious advantages, the technology also creates potential obstacles. When a particular machine or vehicle responsible for maintaining the farmland experiences a malfunction, it can take several days to have the proper technician come to the farm. The resulting lost time has the potential to devastate smaller farms for whom every minute counts.

Farmers: Natural Engineers

Most of us regard farms with a healthy amount of romanticism and nostalgia, and while there are plenty of rustic farmers out there still, the rise of high-technology in farming reveals a world in transition. It’s enough to beg the question: is technology-aided work any less rewarding than its brute-force counterpart? The answer, so far, seems to be no.

Part of it has to do with most farmers being, at a fundamental level, DIY enthusiasts. The prospect of a tractor that can automatically collect data to track crop growth and offer suggestions on how to make growth more efficient sounds useful to most farmers—and it is. Of course, as most farmers are DIY and handymen types to begin with, they tend to tinker with any device, whether it’s making a knife sharper, or trying to expand the capabilities of a complex high-tech machine.

In the world of agriculture, however, the livelihood of a farm often cannot withstand the misstep of a farmer who fiddled a bit too much with a piece of farming technology, rendering it unusable and bringing their farm to a literal stand-still. When complex agricultural equipment is interfered with, it can’t be solved with duct tape and hammering.

Unfortunately, some manufacturers of this farming equipment and technology have made repairs practically impossible, even for advanced farmers with engineering experience.

The Absence of Repair Procedures and Wiring Diagrams in Farming Equipment

Repairs of anything are difficult without context or instructions, whether it’s cattle equipment or a John Deere trailer. Unfortunately, an ample amount of farming equipment purchased in the ‘90s and ‘00s were devoid of repair procedures and wiring diagrams, which resulted in just two available options for repair: either pay a lot of money to have the manufacturer do the repair themselves, or risk the technology breaking entirely by doing it yourself. According to Dave (no last name given), a farmer who spoke with Wired, “[DIY repair] is cheaper than calling out the technician. But that information is just not out there.”

The modern cost of repairing a tractor has resulted in hordes of farmers abandoning computerized systems altogether, acceding that the repair costs and headaches as not worth the potential of an automated and more efficient farming future. It’s subsequently not surprising that, in a September issue of Farm Journal, farm auction expert Greg Peterson found that demand for newer tractors was dropping. Meanwhile, the prices and demand of older tractors has increased. Simply put, there’s a growing number of farmers more keen on the idea of using older and simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.

It all comes down to farmers understandably wanting an affordable and open-source way to fix the machines that their farming livelihoods depend on. If the future of farming is truly represented by these high-tech machines, these farmers are wondering why manufacturers continue to be so secretive about how to fix these machines that farmers spend many thousands of dollars on.

Oftentimes, repairs for these machines require different connectors and specific diagnostic software to even begin the repairs, which means that even the handiest and most engineering-inclined farmers have no chance at repairs without the proper digital authorization—and that’s something the manufacturers don’t grant easily. John Deere’s repair interface, for instance, requires specific access to diagnostic software that is essentially hack-proof, making it impossible for many farmers to repair themselves some of the most popular farming equipment available.

Proposed Solutions

I reached out to several companies that specialize in farming and ranching equipment. I was lucky enough to get a response from the Global Livestock Equipment Group—a collective originally founded by Arrow Farmquip. Their representative took me through their catalog of cattle handling systems and pointed out which ones involve computers. The answer: Not many. While cattle handling is admittedly a different beast than maintaining acres of farmland, the challenges are the same: introduce products with fewer proprietary parts, and improve transparency when it comes to repair processes.

But the larger world of farming and ranching is still in a difficult place as it makes its peace with the Internet of Things. Seeing how many of these companies aren’t budging in their refusal to provide diagnostic access and repair info, farmers have taken action with Farm Hack, an online community founded by Dorn Cox in 2010 that has the aim of “helping our community of farmers to be better inventors, developing tools that fit the scale and their ethics of our sustainable family farms.”

In promoting free knowledge and providing an open-source database of farming tools and repair data, Farm Hack is currently in a legal grey area. But it’s helping farmers out nonetheless while promoting open-source knowledge among some of the country’s hardest-working individuals, who continue to be an essential force in an improving economy despite the absurdities they encounter in trying to fix their own tools.

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