Local farmers innovate at first IC Farm Hack event

BY ERIC LIGHTNER | JUNE 22, 2012 6:30 AM

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Ben Shute has helped design a tool that will monitor greenhouses and text-message farmers whenever problems arise.

The idea for such an invention, he said, came as a result from a FarmHack meeting in New Hampshire.

"We came up with a model for a tool that a farmer could build with off-the-shelf tools for 130 bucks," said Shute, a cofounder of FarmHack.

Shute, who is a full-time vegetable farmer, said the tool could potentially save farmers thousands of dollars, and it is very close to becoming a working prototype.

FarmHack has expanded from being a blog for farmers to share ideas into meetings for farmers nationwide.

"The goal of the FarmHack project is to help farmers in general get together and generate new ideas," Shute said. "The idea first and foremost is to get farmers together."

FarmHack is an entirely volunteer-driven project made up of farmers from all around the nation. The project started as an online blog with the purpose of helping farmers generate new ideas as well as to try to tap into networks of people who are not farmers but want to help develop new techniques and farming practices.

Roughly 30 local farmers gathered in the IMU to generate inventive farming solutions for everyday use in the first-ever Iowa FarmHack.

"I would say we had a raging success for the first-ever Iowa FarmHack event," said Grant Schultz, a local farmer and cohost of the Iowa City FarmHack.

Liz Christiansen, the director of the UI Office of Sustainability, said FarmHack also functions as a way to improve sustainability.

"We look at ways to improve the sustainability of farming through advancement in engineering," she said. "I think farmers are interested in those kinds of opportunities."

Kristen Loria, a cohost of the Iowa City FarmHack, said the project is primarily group-driven.
"It's really up to the participants whether it's a success or not," she said.

Loria said there were three new ideas to come out of the event. A "Quadracycle" that could be used for berry-picking that the operators could lie down on the device and pick berries without having to bend over, an Aquaculture system for salmon growth, and an automated chicken-coop system for opening and shutting the coop that would be solar-powered.

The Quadracycle, which was designed by two local farmers at the FarmHack event, is based on larger industrial models used for the same purpose.

In spite of the environmentally friendly ideas, Loria was quick to point out that FarmHack is primarily a farming initiative.

"There is emphasis on sustainable farming, but they are farmers," she said.

Schultz said the UI was an ideal place to host the event.

"Iowa State is kind of the peak of agricultural stuff, but it kind of shirks small farmers," he said.

Christiansen said the small-farm community near Iowa City makes the UI campus a good meeting place for FarmHack.

"In Johnson County, we have a lot of organic producers and small producers," she said.

Over all, the participants thought it was a success, and they hope to take home some of the techniques they learned and apply them to their own projects.

"I thought the event was amazing," said Ilsa DeWald, a copresident of the UI Gardeners. "I hope to use the focused energy event model to help with our garden problem solving."

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