On Friday June 8, 2012 I presented about Farm Hack at the 12th annual American Ecological Engineering Society conference. Ecological engineering is designing ecosystems for the mutual benefit of people and the environment. It was held in Syracuse, NY at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Most of the approximately 150 participants were academics, students or consulting engineers.
Categories of presentations and posters included ecosystem restoration, sustainability and sustainability analysis, education, community and technology transfer, water and wasterwater and, of course, agroecosystems. In addition to Farm Hack, other presentations on agroecosystems were on vermicomposting, harvesting rainwater for food production, accumulation of antimicrobials by crops, the impact of Andean coca cultivation, quantifying changes in cacao growing regions in West Africa and managing human waste as a nutrient resource.
Ecological engineers are ideal collaborators for Farm Hack. Farmers are the original ecological engineers – they manage and design ecosystems to grow food. Farmers do this with tractors and seeds, while engineers are more likely to use diagrams and computer models to get the job done. Ultimately their goals are the same: work with the environment to provide services that people need. Ecological engineering strives to be both quantitative and qualitative in its approach. It acknowledges and expects natural systems to self-organize and favors directing existing conditions rather than building expensive infrastructure. Farm Hack as a social technology that mimics this principle with its open source ethic where information is made available to everyone.
So far the focus of Farm Hack has been on physical tools which are great because these tools can be used regardless of location and are easily transferrable from farm to farm. However, Farm Hack has yet to delve into ecological design. This is entirely understandable as ecological systems are inherently site specific and require much more data to frame a problem before a solution can even take shape. These kinds of projects would require long term relationships between farmers and engineers in order be implemented.
Many topics within ecological engineering translate directly to agricultural needs. Phytotechnology is using plants to accomplish specific goals like soil stabilization or remediating contaminants in the soil and water. Urban farming, where soils are frequently less than ideal and require restoration has the potential to benefit hugely from phytotechnology.
All farms produce waste and depend on soil fertility, but may be able to address these issues in better ways. Composting systems can be designed for different purposes: improving soil fertility or stabilizing food waste, offal and animal mortalities.
Stormwater management is a big deal for agriculture. Some farmers could benefit from capturing rainwater and using it for irrigation later, but others may be more concerned about preparing for flood events.
Engineering analyses that examine the economics, energy and resource usage and nutrient cycling may be useful as well. Farmers frequently don’t have a way to quantify their practices effectively could use them to make better management and business decisions.
The presentation was well-received and the audience asked thoughtful questions about the specifics of how the Farm Hack community shares information and plans events. My hope is that Farm Hack gained exposure in the ecological engineering community and that this is the beginning of more engineers participating. Farm Hack was highlighted by Stew Diemont, the president of the society, in his closing remarks as an example of exciting new directions for ecological engineering.