Going Forward To The Land: Technology For Permaculture

It’s usual for a Hackaday scribe to read hundreds of web pages over a typical week as we traverse the world in search of the good stuff to bring you. Sometimes they’re obvious Hackaday stories but as you’ll all no doubt understand we often end up on wild tangents learning about stuff we never expected to be excited about. Thus it was last week that I happened upon a GQ piece charting the dwindling remains of the communes set up in rural California by hippies during the counterculture years.

With only a few ageing residents who truly embraced the back-to-the-land dream remaining, these adventurously-designed home-made houses are gently decaying into the forest. It’s a disappearing world, but it’s also close to home for me as someone who crew up on a self-sufficiency smallholding in the 1970s. My parents may not have been hippies in the way those of everyone else in that scene at the time seemed to be, but I learned all my curiosity and hacking skills in the many opportunities presented to a small child by an unruly combination of small farm and metalworking business. There’s part of me that would build a hippy home in a Californian forest in a heartbeat, and throw myself with gusto into subsistence vegetable growing to get me through each winter.

Should Nixie Clocks And Retrocomputers Give Way To Farming Robots?

A bowl of petunias
We’ll save the petunias for Douglas Adams. Dandy1022, CC BY-SA 4.0.

So fresh from musing on hippy utopias and rose-tinted reminiscing, a Tweet from [Mara¹] struck a chord. They asked “So which hacker con is going to be first to offer workshops in woodworking and horticulture?“. Woodworking should be right on-message, but horticulture?

While at first sight the idea of gardening at a hacker camp seems unlikely, I think I’m right in understanding that their point lay not in the best technique for potting out the petunias, but in permaculture skills. In effect, hacking the environment to grow plants whether for food or not, and therein lies a huge range of crossover with a hacker camp, as well as with the self-sufficiency side of my upbringing and those aged hippies in California.

When your summers growing up are spent running wild and barefoot in the Oxfordshire countryside, you take for granted the things that you learn and it’s only later that you find it’s not that common to be able to milk a cow, deliver a calf, make hay, or extend the growing season and pick the right varieties to have home-grown fruit and vegetables year round in the soggy British climate. Perhaps they have a point, and should our community be applying more of its skills towards permaculture hacks and less towards technology for its own sake? Perhaps this is best expressed not in terms of going back to the land to live the life of an 18th century subsistence farmer, but going forward to it, and helping create a future where technology is an integral part of successful permaculture.

Paging through a week of Hackaday articles it’s pleasing to see that you, the community we cover, are as inventive as you’ve ever been. Hackaday articles cover a varied range of fascinating hacks that captivate us who spend our days under the sign of the Wrencher, and we hope they do for you too. But it’s true, not many hacker takes on permaculture come our way. Is that because not much of interest is happening in that field? We don’t think so, more likely is that the really interesting projects either aren’t being documented online or appear in communities that don’t (yet) intersect with ours. We’d like to see more agricultural robots maybe like the FarmBot in the header image, and smallholding automation. We think you might too. Should our community turn its thoughts forward to the land? As always, the comments are open.

34 thoughts on “Going Forward To The Land: Technology For Permaculture

  1. “Sometimes they’re obvious Hackaday stories but as you’ll all no doubt understand we often end up on wild tangents learning about stuff we never expected to be excited about. ”

    I often wish the “Not a Hack!” people would think of that…

  2. 100%. Farmbots that do weeding or bug control for you with AI-based computer vision sensors, or keep your garden watered the optimal amount were some of the earliest inspiration I had for how robotics and crafting could actually be useful and meaningful in the world. We spend a lot of time on nixies and glowy shit because it’s easy and cute. But, frankly, I think we need to grow up.

    1. Permaculture is about maintaining close contact with nature, observing and developing an intimate knowledge of natural systems. Farmbots are contradicties to this principle.
      Technologie and hacks are of course useful in permaculture, just be careful that they don’t corrupt the essence of it.

        1. Permaculture is not a science, it is a design system based on nature. Technologie and science are used in permaculture but are not essential to it.
          I am simply advocating the “right use”of science. The “wrong use” of science has greatly contributed to the problems and issues we face.

  3. This past summer I tried growing “the 3 sisters”, a native American vegetable garden with corn (maize), pole beans, and squash growing together in the same plot.

    Unfortunately, due to an early summer drought, only some of the corn came up.
    I hope to try again next year.

  4. “Perhaps they have a point, and should our community be applying more of its skills towards permaculture hacks and less towards technology for its own sake? Perhaps this is best expressed not in terms of going back to the land to live the life of an 18th century subsistence farmer, but going forward to it, and helping create a future where technology is an integral part of successful permaculture.”

    And then there are those that embrace things like hydroculture which is a subset, and has growth potential.


    1. So, my ham radio adventures aren’t a hobby because I started with the goal of being able to communicate from an off-grid situation? I think you’ve too narrowly defined “hobby.” One can do a thing for both pleasure and practical reasons, yours is a false dichotomy.

    2. So, ham radio isn’t a hobby because I started it with the goal in mind of being able to communicate from an off-grid situation? My grandma’s knitting isn’t a hobby because she makes Christmas gifts? My daughter’s skateboarding isn’t a hobby because she plans to compete?

      1. It all depends where you are looking. Permaculture is basically based on ethics where the needs of the environment are equally important to your own needs. And it’s creating systems that incorporate the health and well-being of both, whatever that means to you. If you’re new-age it will probably be expressed that way. If you’re not, it won’t.

    1. well, i sometimes dig wooden boxes with mouldy, cooked white rice up, in the forest. And did dig down the box days before with fresh cooked rice. Because it is a way of catching certain soil fungii local to my area and climate. Sounds strange? Read up about JADAM/Korean natural farming, then it starts to make sense.

      The said cow horn is filled with fresh cow manure from a lawn, at least in the version I did read centuries ago. Digging it down in a field closes out the oxygen hence giving the lactic acid bacteria in the manure a headstart. That is *my* explanation for that. Improving yield with what you already have available: the very definition of hacking.

      Biodynamic Gardening IMO is a cult, which gets a few things right (maybe by accident), but does not explain them in a scientific way.

      Terra preta, bokashi composting, EM are other marketing cults out there. “it only werks with $MAGICSTUFF from $FARAWAY, availavle from our webshop” Most of the markting is bullshit.
      It boils down to improving the living so web of funghi, microorganisms, and having just enough of nutrients available.

      The methods of JADAM tick most of the boxes. It is not complicated, if you get the hang of it.
      And much fun can be had along the way.

  5. Nope, that’s bio dynamic an offshoot from Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy.
    Permaculture is a ethical design science based on ecology and the old videos of Bill Mollinson are fascinating to watch.

  6. I read that article in GQ already, someone pointing it out. Her father was a foundi g member if Total Loss Farm in Vermont.

    Few of that era were farmers, but they could build those weird houses because they didn’t have to follow municipal codes, or neighbors. So they could build with odd material, but also thick walls, or sunken houses, to be more energy efficient.

    But it was a time of do it yourself. A wind generator makes more sense if you don’t need much electricity, or use solar power for heating water, and so on.

    The Mother Earth News started back then, full of articles, it still exists today. In 1976, Undercurrents magazine in the UK published “Radical Technology” about this kind of thing.

  7. I’d like to see more articles about electronics and plant interactions myself. One of my long-term projects is a hanging aeroponic cooking herb garden in my kitchen that uses moisture and acidity controls run through an Arduino to a hanging trellis of a unique design.

    I’ve had success growing enormous bushes of basil to make my own pesto as well as eggplant, but I would like to bring them inside full-time for the year and really get into using electronics to monitor everything about the growing conditions.

  8. There are a lot of cool hacker like permaculture designs on the forums at https://permies.com/. Browse around enough and you’ll find amazing and innovative home built designs for everything from composting toilets to home insect farms with varying levels of tech and automation.

  9. I thought it worth mentioning Hacker Farm (in Japan). There’s a nice Hackaday post with several interesting comments by [akiba] (the project founder): https://hackaday.com/2015/09/07/the-rise-of-the-rural-hacker/

    In the US (Missouri) there’s the Open Source Ecology project: http://opensourceecology.org/
    I’ve been following their Modern Steam Engine design, but it seems to have “run out of steam” lately. Perhaps too many regulations around steam engines in the US? I know import of Indian Listeroids got banned years ago.

  10. I too would like to see more articles to encourage motivation.

    I built a raised bed for a farmbot but got distracted by other projects and now the bed is a wildly successful strawberry patch.

  11. I’ve been following Farmbot’s adventure from the start. As a DIY tinkerer AND permaculture enthusiast, I tried to get the topic of technology assisted plant growing upvoted by my fellow gardeners, but they are reluctant to even consider it because they see it as a contradiction to connection with nature.

    From my perspective, it’s a great opportunity to get plants growing in places that are difficult to access – such as rooftops of enterpise buildings… It’s also a great opportunity to learn more about the biochemistry at work in the soil… but I guess it’s true that it doesn’t help connecting to nature much in the sense of getting the hands “dirty” and that electronics tinkering isn’t the greenest activity.

    But i’d love to see more “green” hacks :)

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