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My Story

by Jamie Gaehring | September 15, 2020

I was 15 when I decided I did not want to be a farmer. It was a drought year and my first summer working on a family farm in New Jersey. I loved the work, but I can recall vividly the moment I made up my mind.

We were riding back to the packing shed with a wagon half-full of squash; I was holding on from the tractor's running board, Joey was at the wheel. The night before Joey had been on "water watch." It was a task that the adult members of the family took turns at while the drought continued, essentially an all-nighter spent moving irrigation pipe from field to field. Joey was normally the most cheerful member of the family. He would often sing on rides back like this, but he was beat. He still managed a tired smile, at least until we came alongside a field he had been watering the night before. The plants were laying down in the field and already yellowing under the midday sun. I watched the smile fall from his face and heard an involuntary sigh escape his mouth and I knew I could never endure that kind of defeat and keep on farming, the way his family had for generations.

I've told this story hundreds of times over the course of my career. During my tenure as a farmers market manager in New York City, it was how I showed deference to the farmers in the program. Later in my career, as I shuttled back and forth between city and country, providing communications and information services to a farm upstate, it was how I kept myself from getting talked into leaving the city for good and farming full-time. Often I conveyed the irony of having sworn off farming at an early age, only to spend the next two decades in farming-adjacent jobs. Always I pointed out that despite my own reluctance to farm, I was inpsired to serve those who do.

Yet this story has come to signify something more as I've told it over the years and reflected on its implications. I've come to understand the hidden assumptions based in that decision not to farm, the percieved barriers and limitations. I took for granted that only those born into multi-generational farms could take on the financial burden of running a full-time farm, given the required starting capital, the narrow margins and limited returns. I assumed there would always be an inflexible market that froze prices during bad growing years, and consolidated any windfalls into the hands of a few brokers and middlemen in good times. And given all those constraints, I couldn't see how anyone could ever work for a farm and make a living wage.

I am heartened by the movements today to make farming more inclusive and equitable, spearheaded by organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition, Soul Fire Farm, and others. Part of me wonders what different path I may have taken had that 15-year-old kid encountered some of those communities back then. But I can't turn back the clock, and having found a new profession that I truly love and that supports me, I wouldn't want to.

Still, I feel honored that I can continue to serve those who farm through the software I build. I don't believe technology alone will miraculously save us, that some fancy new algorithm is going to democratize our economy or heal all our societal ills. Technology is politically and ethically neutral, indifferent to our problems. It is only what we choose to do with that technology that determines how we benefit and how the gains are shared, through policy and hard work.

I am here to do the work, to produce code that promotes justice and inclusivity rather than coercion and divisiveness. As Lawrence Lessig writes, "Code is law." It is not some magical fount of freedom, but rather a tool by which those in power can regulate and control our body politic. Code is policy written in bytes. But insomuch as we have the power to shape that code, we have the power to return control to those who, by their labor, produce the food and essential materials that sustain our world.

This is why I believe in software freedom, in agriculture as in other areas. Software touches more and more aspects of our daily lives, but if you are not free to read, share and change the source code that runs that software, you can't have a say in how that software will shape our lives.

I don't expect many farmers will dive into the source code I write, but along with the software I build I want to help build communities that can effectively, ethically and transparently govern that code. In this way farmers can engage in the process and take it as a surety that the software represents their interests and that the data they put into it is theirs to own and control.

Agriculture continues to change, becoming more data-driven and entwined with modern technology. That aspect of change is inevitable, more a matter of when than whether. But I hope that new generations of farmers will also see a changed landscape of opportunities, enabled by what technologies we choose to adopt—opportunities that weren't available way back when I first encountered agriculture. I hope somewhere there will be a 15-year-old kid who sees those opportunities and can seize on the future I never had.