Dorn Cox is cofounder of Farm Hack, an online community of farmers founded in 2011, dedicated to sharing plans and advice for building and modifying farming tools and machinery. Cox is also the owner of a 250-acre certified organic farm in New Hampshire that sells more than 100 different products directly to 75 restaurants using an online ordering and logistics management system he built collectively with other farmers in his surrounding area.
The Farm Hack community is made up of mostly midwestern, upper northeast, and west cost farmers, as well as some in western Europe. We caught up with Cox to find out how farm hackers view venture-backed agtech and where the gaps are between agtech solutions currently in the marketplace and the small and medium-sized operations in the Farm Hack community.
How does the Farm Hack community view the rise of venture-backed agtech since its boom in 2015? Is it on their radar? How do they feel about it?
It’s definitely on the radar, but I think what we’re trying to do is show that there are alternative ways to provide incentives for research and development and for innovation. In fact, there is a tremendous amount of innovation that’s involved in agriculture every day. It happens on the farm, and the value of that is intrinsic and doesn’t necessarily need a venture-backed company to have value.
So really in the case of Farmhack, it’s creating solutions driven by farmers for farmers. The value is actually in the product that’s produced, not in the company that produced it. We’re a community of farmers building tools with the intention of making them better for our own use.
There’s a great history of this. You can go back to Thomas Jefferson having this debate with folks who were trying to speculate on the genetics of Merino rams. They’re trying to make sure that the farmers have access to the best ideas because we all benefit when farmers have access to the best tools.
I think where we intersect with the larger tech world is the miniaturization — democratization of the technology to observe, to communicate, to analyze, and to produce. Big-scale agriculture hasn’t really embraced the technical revolution that’s really miniaturizing and shortening supply chains in lots of other industries.
I think there’s a great deal of potential for leveraging that technology to reduce the economies of scale and gain some of the efficiencies that have lead to these massive supply chains where the farmer is actually owning more of their own supply chain. I actually think that with technology, that’s something they can scale.
That’s interesting because farm to consumer startups are a category that tends to fail. Why do you think there are so many in the graveyard at this point?
So part of the reason, I think, is that often they’ve tried to set up outside of the farmer network. When you try to create a third party to manage it and extract profits from it, there isn’t enough to go around, but that’s where again the advantage is that this can actually be run through the technology and owned directly by the farmer in a cooperative model where the value of it is the intrinsic value. Putting this venture-backed sort of investment-driven entity in between, that’s where you lose the advantage.
And especially if it isn’t owned by the farmer — that is where you’ve seen a lot of failures; when you have that third party trying to extract value by sort of doing arbitrage between the farmer’s price and what the consumer pays, whereas the real advantage is to have the farmer own the technology and get the full value from the customer, and have that technology cooperatively owned and maintained.
I personally have some experience with it. We have our Three Rivers Alliance, which is now a dozen different farmers who have some software-enabled logistics system that allows chefs to order hundreds of products weekly and directly, to manage the delivery route, to manage the printing and labeling. We can handle a lot of complexity that would’ve been absolutely impossible without the software and communications technology.
In a lot of cases, the intellectual property, the actual software, is not complex stuff … it’s just not. What’s more complex is getting the relationships in place to trust and use that system. That’s something that’s really local. The technology behind it is not difficult to reverse engineer or to figure out on your own. Ten years ago or 15 years ago it would have been much more challenging.
What’s the limiting factor in terms of the size of that kind of operation? I’m assuming if the farms got large enough it wouldn’t make sense anymore.
It gets down to the materials, handling and dealing with the complex diversity of crops and packaging. But again, because you have the full supply chain and you’re getting the full retail price essentially, there’s a lot more margin. It doesn’t have to be as efficient as Amazon.
And I think there’s a social scale as far as handling. When it gets too far, you don’t have the trust in relationships and you have to start to rely more on technology for building trust and verification and so forth. But again, in our case, we’re dealing with 75 restaurants or so directly. It’s small enough that you can know everybody in the network.
It sounds like you’ve built your own digital tools to handle your sensor data as well. Is that right?
FarmOS is actually something that I’m even more excited about. It’s all part of the same piece: where Farm Hack is about sharing farm tools and technology, farmOS is about understanding and sharing what actually happens on the farm and how all those tools are used, which is actually a really complex thing that hasn’t been well defined before. You have a lot of proprietary farm management systems focusing on a very particular production systems. So they’re looking at a standard way of doing soybeans or it’s a vineyard management system or it’s a row crop or veggie truck farming veggie system.
What we’ve been building with farmOS is a system that can describe any agricultural production system from an urban market garden to a thousand-acre grazing system, to a vineyard. Breaking it down to its most fundamental levels and then building on top of that, custom modules that are useful at the production level and to do that on an open source platform so that they can all talk to one another and that the data coming from them is trusted and secured: that’s one of the major issues as we head into more automation. There is tension around some of the tech companies and the data they’re collecting and the value of that data. Often farmers don’t have control or recognize the value of the data that they’re providing.
Would you say that farmOS is creating an open source alternative to software that’s out there right now? Or would you say that it’s filling holes that are not currently filled by what’s on the market right now?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s creating an alternative for a number of production systems that just simply aren’t represented. So in that sense, it’s filling a hole. And in the sense that it’s creating an alternative, the goal isn’t to necessarily replace but make other systems compatible with one another.
But one of the other key things is that in building that common system, we’re able to make some of the decision support tools that are coming out of academia or other agricultural organizations compatible with one another. So for example, I’ve been working with the Northeast Cover Crop Council on their decision support tools moving to a place where if a farmer enters their data into farmOS, the format is such that they don’t have to enter it again to get the benefit of a cover crop decision support tool.
The fundamental things are that farmers enter their data once and they have control over that data in a secure server that they own. It’s not in the cloud somewhere. And they can opt-in from the decision support tool or the academic user can make their software then compatible with that foundation.
How important is it that tools, from tractors to software. be built so that farmers are able to fix them themselves?
Not necessarily by themselves. I think yes we can have local manufacturing and customization on farms, but we also have access to a whole host of very high-quality local manufacturing tools for precision machining and hunting and so forth that really are the basis for a localized manufacturing economy as well. That is as important as the farm itself. Instead of the manufacturing model or speculative manufacturing — building something that should work well most places — build tools that can be constantly improved over time and get better with use rather than degrade with use or become obsolete. This is the Tesla model too — moving towards constant improvement and upgrades.
What is coming up for Farmhack?
We’ve put more effort into the documentation platform and creating a searchable library for tools. The next round of improvements will be multi-language support and creating apps to make it much easier to document with and without an internet connection. Then also using other partners to create more up to date forums and chat and other social media experiences.