Insights into Appropriate Technology
Ever since Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, proclaimed "get big or get out," farms and farmers in the United States have followed the logic of corporate capitalism - bigger farms, bigger tractors, and more complex and expensive technology. A new corn harvester bought today costs about $400,000 and comes decked out with proprietary computer systems and GPS monitoring - the tractors can literally drive themselves, collecting scads of production data that happen to go right back to the large corporations manufacturing these machines. This technology makes combining a thousand acre field much easier, but it often puts farmers deep into debt and wrests control of their own farming systems and production information from their hands.
For smaller scale sustainable producers, the modern form of mainstream agricultural technology does not fit our function. The appropriate tools for our agriculture put biology before steel and diesel, are modular, adaptable, and designed for disassembly. We engineer systems instead of software, finding local solutions to local problems. Appropriate tools should not make a farmer obsolete - they empower the user to modify and improve upon age-old tools and ideas, or build something new using whatever resources they have available.
Appropriate technology for sustainable farming is economically appropriate because it means retrofitting and using what you already have close at hand or getting it from your neighbor or local fabricator, rather than putting profit into the pockets of global corporations. It is environmentally appropriate because it harnesses the utility of our ecological systems while preserving and enriching them. It is intellectually appropriate because it reduces barriers to knowledge exchange, putting the best solutions in the hands of farmers. In this new paradigm, every farm is a research and development node in a distributed network of farmers, engineers, and technologists building a new economy from the ground up enabling independence through interdependence .
Instead of homogenizing, privatizing and commodifying our farm technologies, we must support the time-tested tradition of on-farm innovation, and promote economically, ecologically and socially resilient solutions. We must leverage technology appropriately as a tool to reduce barriers to information transfer and foster collaboration. On the outskirts of our conventional system of top-down manufacturing and proprietary tools is emerging a new community and a new paradigm - farmers, fabricators, engineers, and designers working together to build resilient, regionalized manufacturing economies. This is the movement we all must continue building together, for strong communities, healthy ecological systems, and good food. The future is open-source!