Farmer as Creative


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.


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.


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.


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.


There were many more innovative ideas than could be covered in this exhibit. Websites like Farm Show magazine and (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.




Sustainability topics: Efficiency vs. Resilience

Sustainability is a broad topic, and one I’m very passionate about. The debates on peak oil, renewable energy, conservation, and other topics are fascinating to me and I’m actively working to do more to live the ideas I talk about.

One of these ideas concerns the difference between efficiency and resilience. The current push in society runs very strongly toward efficiency: doing more with less. Using resources efficiently means creating as few opportunities as possible for them to sit around waiting to be used. For example, manufacturing processes strive to match supply with demand so that there is just enough of a product available and no extra stock sitting on shelves unsold.

Efficient processes make sense because we are trying to reduce waste and only use resources when the need is there for them. The problem with this strategy is that if something goes wrong, the whole system falls apart. When production is centralized, it allows for more control of the process and more efficient use of resources, but if a hurricane hits the area and the power is out, production stops completely. Efficient designs like this work great, as long as nothing goes wrong – and of course, it’s not a matter of if something goes wrong, but when

As an example, there are many discussions in the renewable energy field about how a relatively small area of the desert, covered in solar panels, could provide power for the entire country (or world, as the case may be). However, this reliance on a centralized source of energy is problematic. If the distribution system were disrupted, power could go out across a huge area, which would be enormously damaging. Or, consider hybrid car batteries and LED bulbs, both of which use rare earth metals which are currently mainly being produced in China. While these new technologies are very energy-efficient, they rely on source materials that are centralized and vulnerable.

In contrast, resilient designs have the opposite focus from efficient ones. Resilience is the presence of unused resources: building in more capacity than is actually required. Bridges are resilient, not efficient: a resilient bridge is overengineered, so it can handle stresses like increased loads, severe weather, or infrequent maintenance, without collapsing. Despite the fact that the bridge may never encounter these situations, it is still built this way, because the potential cost of not doing so (the bridge collapses) is much higher than the cost of overengineering it. Resilient design reduces the severity of a disaster, whether by making it less likely to occur or by reducing its impact when it does occur.

So, building resiliency into systems means they are less vulnerable, but the downside is they are more expensive at the beginning. As with bridges, the comparison has to be made: is the increased cost worth the decreased risk? At present, it’s hard to make the argument for resiliency, with such a strong focus on efficiency. It costs much more, so it’s not often espoused, despite the reduced risk. It’s harder to think of the long term benefits of building resiliency into systems when it requires acting against one’s short term self interest.

So while it would certainly be nice, and more efficient, to cluster solar farms out in the desert and use them to power the country, it isn’t particularly sustainable. The idea of sustainability is to create systems that endure, even through disasters. It does us no good to create a power grid that will work great until it doesn’t. Similarly, we can’t rely on one source for rare earth metals to power our batteries, because if that source dries up, so do our fancy green cars.

Unfortunately, it’s a hard argument to make. When everyone is focused on doing more with less, the idea of purposely building in inefficiency is seen as counterproductive. It’s easier to implement the concept of resiliency on a personal scale. Growing a garden in the backyard, cooking meals at home, and learning to sew are all inefficient uses of your time: there are others who can do those same things for less money and less time than you, and you can spend your time specializing as well. However, it ensures that if something goes wrong, you can still have food and clothing available: you are less efficient, but less vulnerable as well. Think like Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files books! He drives his old VW Beetle specifically because it is inefficient, since that means it is less vulnerable to failure when he uses magic around it.

So! How are you making your life more resilient? Is this an idea you’ve heard of before?


– H