Meatspace Farmville

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2011

The socnetting/gamification of everything seems to be picking up pace. How’d you fancy playing Farmville with a real working farm?

The MyFarm experiment hands over power at the National Trust’s 2,500-acre Wimpole Estate farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. Up to 10,000 farming novices will choose which bull to buy, which crop to plant and whether to spilt fields to resurrect lost hedgerows.

“I will put in here whatever the online farmers want to grow,” said Richard Morris, Wimpole’s manager, standing on the edge of Pond Field, currently green with grass and clover rippling in the wind. “Farming is always a compromise – there is never a right or a wrong answer. If I choose one thing, my neighbour will be leaning over the fence shaking his head.”

Wisely (or perhaps disappointingly, depending on how you view the necessity of learning from stupid mistakes), it’s not a completely open system:

“The online farmers will not be able to choose to grow cannabis or bananas, but undoubtedly there will be some strange decisions, some decisions I would not have made.”

[…]

Morris says all major decisions will be put to the MyFarm users.

There will be one big vote each month, but these could trigger more frequent votes. In Pond Field, for example, if wheat is chosen, should it be bread-making wheat or biscuit wheat? “I am making decisions every day,” he says. “The first thing I do after getting up is look at the weather out of the window, and that sets the day going.”

Right now, with 300 new lambs delivered and scampering in the fields, Morris is bringing in grass to make silage for next winter’s feed. But the dry weather has left the fields short of grass, so the young cattle are being left in the barns for a while, to make sure the sheep have enough.

In the future, Morris says, there will be a smartphone app which will allow him to get near instant decisions from the online farmers. “For example, if I have wheat in the field, ripe and ready, but rain in the morning means it is damp, do we risk waiting and losing some of the crop, or combining [harvesting] it now and incurring some extra drying costs?”

I remember how SimCity and Railroad Tycoon got me interested in economic systems (although, as our very own Jonathan McCalmont has pointed out, the systems they portray don’t reflect reality in an entirely accurate way), so there’s little doubt that gamification can educate and fascinate… but I suspect the slow pay-off aspect of real agriculture will provide insufficient rewards for the sort of folk who get a kick from Farmville. Even so, I’m encouraged by the possibilities for engagement with reality that these sorts of initiatives are moving toward; regular readers will know that I believe we need to become more actively involved with the systems that support our existence, and while MyFarm is a very basic implementation of that idea, it’s a step in the right direction.


Brazilian farming methods could feed a hungry planet

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

There’s few things I enjoy more during my daily feed-reader trawl than a headline with two potential meanings… and here’s a classic case from The Big Think: “Brazilian Model Could Feed The World“. Wow – has he/she started a gene-mod crops business with his/her superstar income? Or perhaps he/she is just very very large, and thus could be sliced up and distributed to the world’s most needy?

As you’ve probably guessed from my own headline, it’s nothing at all to do with a monstrous fifty-foot Brazilian catwalk star (which is slightly disappointing for the B-movie fans in the audience, I guess). As the target article at The Economist explains, the model in question is Brazil’s agricultural policies:

Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

Nothing new about people giving the big-ups to sustainable farming, of course… but to see it lauded in a venue like The Economist (alongside an admission that there’s a food crisis on the way, and that the Demographic Formerly Known As The First World is in the firing line too) is a new one, at least to me. Are we seeing a shift in attitude in business and government – a recognition that the long game is the only one in town, if you want there to still be a town when the game is over?


Crop-mobs, seedbombs and mall-farms

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

The Zeitgeist seems to have developed an obsession with agriculture. Observe:

Ecological fashion trends or economic necessities? I’m thinking a bit of both, and wondering how long they’ll last… hopefully for a while.

Speaking of sustainable living and community development, Futurismic fiction alumnus Douglas Lain (author of the grimly excellent “Resurfacing Billy”) plans to write a “radical self-help book” called Pick Your Battle, which will be…

… a book that will explain and explore urban gleaning, situationist theory, and unschooling while telling the story of my own and my family’s attempt to revolutionize our everyday lives. It will support efforts to organize local foraging, community gardens, psychogeographic field trips, and a confrontation with the current system.

He’s got a funding drive running on Kickstarter; if a mash-up of science fiction, situationism and sustainable living sounds like your cup of tea, why not go pledge Doug a dollar or two to keep him fed while he writes it? An interesting topic, and an adventurous funding model for creative writing.


Colonialism redux

Paul Raven @ 10-03-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, The Guardian reports on Ethiopia, one of the world’s most food-short nations, and how it’s selling huge tracts of arable land to business interests from other countries:

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies.

Again, the line between nation and corporation is becoming very fuzzy indeed. The map is not the territory, so on and so forth. Maybe a Greek island or two might make a good commercial farm plot?

Let’s just hope that this move by Ethiopa doesn’t have the same knock-on effects as the Daewoo land-grab in Madagascar


Permaculture as an MMO?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

permaculture produceTaking a brief break from grim predictions of hyperlocal terrorism and the decline of the nation-state, John Robb hypothesises about a way to solve the looming problem of localised food production: why not make permaculture into a sort of MMO game?

Riffing on the popularity of Farmville (which I suspect bears about as much relation to real farming as a round of Arkanoid bears to real atmospheric re-entry in a spaceship), Robb suggests that boosting the fun and competitive aspects of farming projects in meatspace could be a great way to build more resilient communities:

… the current state of software that aids the design of permaculture plots is pretty dismal. The best people can do is cobble together mapping software, 3D landscape modeling software, and some auto CAD. Of course, it is possible if the resources were available (my team of developers could do it), to build software that enables people to design, optimize, and share permaculture plots, that misses a great opportunity.

The real opportunity is to build a learning system via software, one that naturally trains the people that use it, gets better and more sophisticated over time, and is fun. The only way I know how to do that is build a game.

One of the first things to do, is build a simple Farmville type social game that helps people learn permaculture design principles…

I’ll admit to being cynical on this one; I think the fun elements of a social game based on farming would be swiftly forgotten when it came to the first day of digging irrigation channels under a blazing sun. But maybe not… and Robb’s idea might work well in developing nations where the bulk of people are already farmers, enabling them to learn and shift to new and more sustainable techniques over time. [image by JoePhoto]


Next Page »