116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Carolyn Scherf wants to harvest her peas while lying down.
On Wednesday, the Solon-based vegetable farmer and 20 other local farmers and engineers attended the first day of Farm Hack Iowa - a two-day event at the Iowa Memorial Union - to discuss simple solutions to small farm issues.
“If you are eight hours into the day and have four hours to go, then something like this might be nice to have,” Scherf said of her group's initial design for a small, man-powered contraption in which a farmer would lay prone in and harvest crops from above.
Farm hacks - which were started in 2011 by the National Young Farmers' Coalition - have been held across the Northeast, but Wednesday's event was the first hack in the Midwest.
The events consist of demonstrations, presentations, and collaborative problem solving. Through these, organizers said they hope hacks can be a place where small or beginning farmers can learn about existing, and brainstorm designs for future, cost-effective tools.
“It is certainly a challenge to break into farming these days,” said Severine Fleming, the co-founder of the Young Farmer's Coalition. “For beginning farmers with limited resources, having the skill set to be able to hack your farm equipment, fix your own farm equipment, and adapt it to suit your smaller scale and needs is invaluable.”
As a part of Farm Hack Iowa's agenda, participants toured Echollective Farm & CSA in Mechanicsville, and were shown a demonstration of an electric tractor.
But what attracted Iowa City resident and former farmer Phil Bear to the event was the idea of hashing out ways for farmers to make due with what is readily available.
“It is this sort of pioneer ethic that stretches back in our bloodline for anyone who is based in agricultural,” he said. “This idea that we have something we need to get done and we will make it happen, build what we need with our hands, with whatever we have.”
And past hackers have done exactly that.
Fleming highlighted a propane-based pushcart used for burning weeds, and a budget “smart” greenhouse that informs a farmer when the air inside the structure is reaching dangerous temperatures as a few successful, inexpensive tools conceptualized during prior sessions.
However, the planning of inventions is just the first step.
Organizers said the hope is that participants will stay in touch and monitor progress through an online forum, while also sharing documentation and specifications for their inventions as a way of promoting an open source ideal.
“You only benefit from sharing the intellectual property of the tool,” Fleming said. “Because by opening up your tool to be used by others you are also getting feedback.”
And while some of the ideas that budded during Farm Hack Iowa - such as a solar-powered chicken coop and underground salmon farm - are far from completion, Kristen Loria, who helped organize Wednesday's event, said the simple act of bringing people together to discuss agricultural roadblocks is beneficial.
“I think anyone really can bring ideas and input that is worthwhile,” she said. “But also for their own benefit. This is not just about finding solutions for farmers, but to engage more people in the local food movement, and to understand what it will take to develop a more robust food system.”