Berryville's Dave Buttgen with some fish farmers in Malawi, Africa.
Using wikis and digital fabrication tools, Missouri farmer Marcin Jakubowski is open-sourcing the blueprints for 50 farm machines, allowing anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. And that's only the first step he's taking to write instruction sets for an entire self-sustaining farm operation with equipment costs of under $10,000.
Jakubowski's work has gotten a number of local farmers, mostly organic vegetable and poultry operators, very excited. Jane Pille, President of the Board of Carroll County Fresh (CCF) a local and sustainable agriculture advocacy organization, has made providing open-source blueprints a major goal for the work that CCF will do in 2012-13.
"We're in the middle of writing a lot of grant applications right now," Pille says. "Providing access to open source blueprints--and the training that goes into using them--are two of the main things we'll do, whether we get funding or not. It is always difficult for small farm operators to invest the amount of capital that is sometimes necessary to compete with larger operators," she said.
"Small farmers want to work for themselves and reject borrowing money. 'Why would I want to work for the bank' they say. 'Why can't I build it myself?' We agree with them," Pille said. "Self-sufficiency is a major component in sustainability. CCF is 100% behind appropriate technology."
Appropriate technology is defined as using tools, equipment, and knowledge that is appropriate for the time, place, and resources that are specific to where you happen to be standing. A brief story illustrates the definition:
Three or four years ago I went to Malawi, Africa, to help a group of fresh water fish farmers develop a market for the inland tilapia they raised in small, hand dug ponds. Project Concern International was the main contractor on the project and was in the 3rd year of a project that had more than a few challenges.
My job was to see if the efforts of these farmers could be made profitable, and under what changed circumstances. The big question was "how can they lower the cost of production enough to compete against much larger corporate fish farming operations?"
One problem jumped out. Malawi is a largely deforested country and farmers and householders spend hours every day scavenging or buying enough wood to cook with, or to heat water for other purposes. This is especially problematic for small scale fish farmers because they need wood to dry grain for feed--and the cost of fuel was enough to erase any competitive advantage they held because of market proximity.
The solution appeared to be using lower cost, more efficient drying ovens. After running the numbers several different ways it became clear that this obvious answer was also the right answer. But how to acquire such ovens and, more interestingly, how could farmers with annual incomes of $300 US afford to buy them?
One answer was to simply buy ovens using USAID funds and give each farmer one. But experience has taught that such outright support rarely works. Few 3rd world farmers or workers have the skills or the resources necessary to fix or maintain high tech or "store bought" equipment once it breaks down. Villages in Africa are literally awash in rusting and junked equipment bought with taxpayer dollars.
I asked retired engineer Dave Buttgen, a friend and member of the church I belong to, how possible it is to build an affordable, highly efficient drying oven using only materials found in an impoverished semi-arid region of the 3rd world.
Dave left our meeting resolved to find an answer to my question and, in a matter of days, came up with a solution using commonly available sheet metal from junked parts and bricks made with local adobe-like mud. Dave agreed to come to Africa with me to field test his invention and--long story short--he did, it worked great, and more than 30 farmers are now profitably using the Buttgen Fish Pellet Drying Oven.
The Appropriate Technology conversation has gotten several local organizations and individuals interested in learning more about how to apply it to our mostly small scale farming operations here in the Ozarks. Jerry Landrum, who is the founder of Greenwood Eco-Village in Eureka Springs and Linda Lewis, founder of Homesteading University, are two long time practitioners of appropriate technology and hope to be resources for area farmers and small food sector business operators.
"CCF and Homesteading University hope to become the 'go-to' source for appropriate technology information and training locally," Lewis said. "In the mean time, we're really going to go to school on the work that Marcin Jakubowski and other folks are doing. We aren't going to reinvent the mousetrap--we're just going to make better ones."