Capital Press

ATHOL, Idaho — Luke Black has big plans for his small farm.

He and his wife, Emily, even use the process of “mining” cryptocurrency — digital currencies such as Bitcoin — to heat their chicken coop. They have installed the computer “miner” on the wall and use fans to blow the heat into the coop to keep their chickens warm.

Market garden beds on their 10-acre farm will soon have sensors that send data about the crops to a server in his house. A full-time computer programmer, Black wrote the server software and designed and built their irrigation controller.

He also wants to develop artificial intelligence that would take information about the soil, crops, marketplace and weather and automatically make decisions about the farm, alerting employees about work that needs to be done.

“Sorry, farm managers of the world, but if I can replace that job with a computer, then I don’t have to pay that and that’s more money for the workers and for us,” he said.

Luke, 36, spent most of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm outside Rathdrum in northern Idaho. Emily, 32, comes from a cattle ranch in Montana.

Luke raises hops and heritage grains. Emily likes the market garden and raising chickens for eggs.

“Anything to make our lives easier with technology, I’m completely on board with that,” Emily said, calling herself the “supporter” in Luke’s plans for the farm. “I help with anything, but that’s not my passion. Mine’s digging in the dirt and being on the ground with (the chickens).”

Luke eventually hopes to reach tech-level salaries while farming. He says many other computer programmers are also interested in farming.

“All of us younger, millennial tech guys are realizing we can’t be in the tech world much longer,” he said. “It’s hard on your body, sitting all day, working those hours and stress. The problem is you can’t make a living farming.”

Large agriculture uses some IoT — the initials for the Internet of Things — connecting physical devices to the internet, but it’s difficult to get cost-effective information about crops in small-scale farming, he said.

“Small farms are not extremely profitable, but what Luke is developing can be affordable for the small farm,” said Colette DePhelps, a University of Idaho Extension area educator for community food systems in Moscow.

“Luke is a farmer doing the development side of it, so he gets agriculture,” she said. “That’s going to create a responsiveness in the system that might not happen if it came from the technological sector (and) folks who did not have experience in agriculture.”

Luke sees a “revolution in the making.” The farmers of the future will be programmers, he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to be a successful farmer without knowing how to code,” he said. “Whether people like it or not, what’s going to end up happening is people like me are going to get robots on the fields that can run 24 hours a day, that don’t take a break, and can produce things far cheaper than most people will be able to do.”

His next step is to put devices in the field to send data back to his servers using a wireless Wi-Fi signal.

“There’s a big hole in the market for small-scale guys, there’s no real good sensor packages that we could use to do this,” he said. “I’m not an electrical engineer by any means, it’s just a hobby. But I’m doing it all myself because there’s nothing out there right now.”

Black is not interested in designing such technology himself.

“I don’t want it to be me, I want to be a farmer,” he said.


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