Last weekend I attended a rather unusual festival. The venue was a large field and various other parts of a farm – nothing so unusual about that. The attendees stayed in tents, vans or caravans, and spent much of the evening gathered around a fire, singing together. Again, nothing particular un-festival-like about this behaviour. No, what was maybe slightly out of the ordinary (though becoming increasingly popular) was the nature of the event itself. The aim was to launch the UK version of Farmhack (1), which, though simple and brilliant in concept and practical application, may at first take a little explanation.
So, what’s a Farmhack?
Farmhack was created by North American organisation the Greenhorns (2), who were set up in 2007 by Severine von Tscharner Fleming to “recruit, promote and support the new generation of young farmers” (2). Inspired by this, the UK-based Landworkers Alliance (3) hosted the Farmhack UK launch, and have also this year created the Groundspring Network (4) , a kind of UK version of the Greenhorns specifically aimed at encouraging farming and growing of all kinds to those of a younger generation. When you look at figures such as the fact that the percentage of farmers in the UK aged under 35 is just 3% (4), such groups seem a breath of fresh air.
Farmhack in its physical form is a website which promotes, in a nutshell, ‘open source community for resilient farm tools’ (1). To understand why and how it does this, it is perhaps necessary to consider a little of the background of farming in the UK, where the average size of a farm is over 100 hectares (5). This statistic is indicative of the trend in this country towards large-scale, high-input intensive monoculture farming, which relies upon agrochemical companies in order to sustain the strain which such methods put on the environment and people.
For example, if a farmer decides to fill a field with only one crop instead of a mixture, they are putting the nutrient levels in the soil out of balance and so have to compensate by adding new chemical nutrients. Perhaps they need to kill off insects which may be harmful to their crops (insects whose predators, perhaps, have been depleted due to the effect of the aforementioned chemicals) and so they apply pesticides. If they wish to continue in this way they will benefit from crops which have been bred to withstand any ill affects which pesticides may produce in them and so they need to buy the seeds from such crops from the relevant seed company. Such a scenario, with a number of variations, is quite common and tends towards farmers being a part of a highly mechanised industry, in which there are particular products and machines recommended to use.
One of the ideas of Farmhack is to step away from this trend by encouraging technological innovations of any kind to be shared publicly through the online platform. These innovations are known as ‘hacks’. A ‘hack’ is defined as anything which creates a shortcut, or makes a task easier (6), and can be as complicated as a ‘record keeping and profitability tool’ (7) to a pain-free hammering method (8). Such tools do not have to be physical pieces of technology or machinery; ideas are just as potent. The key is that we are facilitating each other’s work by sharing the things we have found to be useful.
So what’s a farming festival like?
The venue of the Farmhack launch was Ruskin Mill (9) – a biodynamic farm and agricultural college made up of lush rolling hills and which has a beautiful, drinking-water spring on site, and which also boasts a number of intriguingly-designed sustainable buildings, including the field kitchen where most of the Farmhack action took place; a charming, snail-shell-shaped affair with a grass roof.
Like many festivals, Farmhack involved people coming together, sharing ideas, and dancing and singing. The Saturday night boasted a ceilidh and a fireshow from Topspin Circus (10) (11), as well as much unscheduled entertainment, mainly in the form of the sharing of old folk songs. For those who normally dwell in cities or have very modern lifestyles, this last was quite poignant. Our grandparents’ generation perhaps knew all the folk songs simply as a part of their culture; now we have to seek them out. The same goes for the ease with which one can connect with nature in such an environment; which is perhaps less easy in our ‘day-to-day’ lives.
Nevertheless, this only served to make the festival more special.
Another very significant aspect of the Farmhack was the feeling that everyone there could do whatever we liked. Over the course of the Saturday we were treated to a huge variety of workshops, from practical ones on use of work horses, blacksmithing and woodwork; to gardening tips such as making compost tea and biochar; and talks ranging from the high-tech (how to use the Farmhack website and related apps) to the very simple (such as food groups and how to make food distribution simpler). My favourite part of the workshops was the participatory aspect; though the people running them were clearly very knowledgeable in their field, the inclusive assumption that everyone could have a go was very encouraging in terms of exploring these things for ourselves.
Connecting and reflecting
Though Farmhack, the Landworkers Alliance and the Greenhorns are providing alternatives to high-input, intensive farming, which, since farming is connected to everything else, means they are also encouraging alternatives to trading, money or other currencies, food systems and living situations, they still recognise that farming is an important industry and that farmers should be getting recognition and appreciation for what they do. It is just that when farming is done holistically with an emphasis on community – of people, animals and nature – it is perhaps much easier to celebrate as we can all experience how beneficial it is. This appreciation was apparent in the community feeling at the festival; the shared food which was locally sourced and by all appearances lovingly prepared, and the encouraging atmosphere of the whole event. On the last day we had an ‘Open Circle’ to discuss the event and any ideas we had come up with. Each person who had an idea for a new direction to take Farmhack in was given their own ‘hack’, and mini discussion groups formed to talk about potential actions for each of these new ideas. you could join one ‘hack’ which interested you particularly, or float amongst the groups, which then feed back to the gathering at large to create a coherent list of new ‘hacktions’.
This spirit of ‘anyone can do it’ is really the essence of the Farmhack spirit. Whatever hack you have, if you can feel it will help others, why not go ahead and add it to the website?
As I continue in my pursuit of practical sustainability and connection to the world around me, I feel sure Farmhack will come in useful this goes for the online aspect, but also, and for me, perhaps more crucially, the importance of gathering together in person to share our ideas, our skills, and our songs. The Farmhack gathering was a fantastic example of this; I hope to see many more such gatherings in the near future.
- Farmhack, 2015. ‘Home’. http://www.farmhack.org/home/ – retrieved 22/4/15
- The Greenhorns, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.thegreenhorns.net/category/about/aboutus/– retrieved 22/4/15
- The Landworkers Alliance, 2015. ‘Organisation’. http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/organisation/– retrieved 22/4/15
- The Landworkers Alliance, 2015. ‘Groundspring Network’. http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/2014/09/groundspring-network/ – retrieved 22/4/15
- Harvey, D, and UK Food Group, 2006. EuropAfrica Project: CAP’s impact on productive structures and family-based agriculture in Europe. UK Case Study’. UK Food Group: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.ukfg.org.uk/UK_CAP_casestudy.pdf – retrieved 22/4/15
- Grey, R, 2015. Workshop on how to use Farmhack. Farmhack UK Launch, Ruskin Mill, 18/4/15.
- Bill, 2015. ‘Record keeping and profitability/ Efficiency Analysis Tool’. Farmhack, 2015. http://www.farmhack.org/tools/record-keeping-and-profitabilityefficiency-analysis-tool – retrieved 22/4/15
- Robingrey, 2015. ‘Nail holder with peg’. http://www.farmhack.org/tools/nail-holder-peg – retrieved 22/4/15
- Ruskin Mill Trust, 2015. ‘Ruskin Mill College Tour’. http://rmt.org/ruskin_mill_college_tour/ – retrieved 22/4/15
- Topspin Circus, 2014. ‘Home’. http://topspincircus.wix.com/topspin– retrieved 22/4/15
- Freya Pleya, 2015. ‘About’. https://freyapleya.wordpress.com/about/– retrieved 22/4/15