Farmer as Creative

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It’s easy to think that science and engineering are devoid of an appreciation for aesthetics. We seem overly focused on results, with little interest in the human dimension of our creations. Indeed, that’s the stereotype; but like all stereotypes, it has very little basis in reality. People in technical fields are still people, and they can still appreciate beauty. Often, however, that beauty is found in different places, such as: in effective, efficient design; in elegant, simple solutions; and in clever and innovative responses (the sort that make you go “oh, that’s neat!”). In science and engineering, beauty is found in function first, then in form. It’s no use having something pretty if it doesn’t accomplish the goal…

This philosophy applies to farming, too. Having a pretty tool that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do isn’t much help. Joe Trumpey explored this idea, in an exhibition titled “Farmer as Creative,” which opened on October 21, hosted at the Work Gallery in Ann Arbor. He explored the many ways farmers design new tools and processes to accomplish tasks and achieve their broader goals, combining function and ethics to improve soil health or water quality, or breed sounder livestock lines.

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Accompanied by live music and delicious food, visitors wandered through the exhibit, exploring the many innovative ways farmers apply creativity to their craft. Dried plants and articles about farmers and their tools decorated the walls, and several tools had been set up for people to try. Tillers International, a nonprofit organization based in Scotts, MI, had a manual hay baler with plenty of hay (clever, farming out work to volunteers!). There was a rope making machine made from a hay rake and water pump parts, and people were encouraged to make their own jump ropes. Friends of mine have made rope by hand before and can attest just how frustrating and mind-numbing it is – this looked like a much easier method. There was also a corn sheller, which was very popular: there was plenty of dried corn to test it on, and the machine stripped the kernels off within seconds.

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Local fermented foods company The Brinery (“Stimulate Your Inner Economy!”) had a fermentation petting zoo, allowing people to see, touch, and smell their products at various stages. With food available in packages at the grocery store, it’s easy to forget where it comes from – and to miss out on fun new foods like sauerkraut and kimchi! There was a new design for a beehive, next to a traditional terracotta beehive. One display involved Native American farm implements, showing that this is a process that has gone on since farming itself was first invented.

The attendees were a diverse bunch: college students, farmers, wandering Ann Arbor residents drawn in by the music, and families with children. The tool demonstrations were a big hit with kids, who were more than happy to lend a hand on the enormous piles of corn and hay. Several farmers were on hand to talk about what they do and to explain the exhibits, and there were way more possibilities for exhibits than there was room available in the building. Articles on the walls described old tools being repurposed (an old plow being used as a berry planter), a portable “sugar shack” for making maple syrup, a calf being fitted with artificial legs, and farmers using oxen to plow fields.

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Farmers’ creativity spans more than new tools: it also includes development of new processes. From preservation methods like canning and fermentation, to a u-pick garden that prices vegetables by the peck, to community gardens sprouting up across the country, farmers are finding new business models and ways to reach their customers.

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There were many more innovative ideas than could be covered in this exhibit. Websites like Farm Show magazine and Farmhack.net (an open source community for resilient agriculture) collect new tools and processes so others can see and use them too. The displays of creativity shown here were truly impressive – definitely enough to make this engineer go “oh, that’s neat!” repeatedly! It’s easy to think that farming just involves putting seeds in the ground, watering occasionally, and then harvesting, but obviously it’s much more complicated than that. As Trumpey explains, “farmers are a tool savvy, process oriented, iteration aware, focused group of problem solvers.” Seeing this exhibit proved once again that efficient, effective design has its own beauty, and that you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art in its myriad forms.

 

Cheers!

-H

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