The Open-Source Farm
Saturday night I went porch sitting in Little Rock. A few friends from the Arkansas agriculture community and I sat on the porch of a friend who runs a community garden for a public school. Over the course of the evening, we talked about everything from music to pumpkins.
It was a good conversation—the kind that ranges easily. I realized how important this kind of gathering is to growing things. Farming isn’t something done well in isolation. You need to trade stories and tips, you need other eyes.
My friend Tim (who was also at the gathering) is starting his first year of raising chickens. Just a few days before, I had gone out to his farm to look at some movable chicken pens he had built called chicken tractors. I had been working on a new design for a chicken tractor, but I’d only built a small prototype; Tim made the first full-sized version. Though the tractor worked well in providing the chickens with plenty of space and protecting them from coyotes, it was pretty heavy to move on a daily basis. Tim tinkered with my design, and the next chicken tractor he built weighed almost half as much as the first one.
We’ve gone back and forth like this several times on the new pen design, and now we have a model that works well for our purposes. We plan to publish the design so others can use it and build on it, too.
Farming takes this kind of communication. The open farm was one of the first spaces of open-source design, with neighbors constantly collaborating with one another and looking over each others’ work to improve on things.
When I was sitting on my friend’s porch in Little Rock, Sylvia, a grad student in community development, told us about a letter she had written to Blanche Lincoln, our state Senator and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Her letter was one of concern about some of the actions of Monsanto, an agricultural company in Arkansas. When she received a call in reply to the letter, it wasn’t from Senator Lincoln, but from a Monsanto representative.
Monsanto is a company generally reviled for its practice of patenting seeds. They develop genetically engineered crops and then make sure that they are the sole source of innovation on those seeds. Unlike the open-source farm, Monsanto limits innovation and improvement through its patents.
A company like Monsanto wouldn’t exist if farmers had been as protective of their designs and practices as Monsanto is. It makes me wonder how much farming will advance in the future as more and more of the field is defined by patents ranging from soil nutrients to seeds to basic farm equipment.
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