(Facebook for farmers, but way more useful)
By Claire Wolfe
Issue #131 • September/October, 2011
In June, I attended The Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington with Dave and Ilene Duffy. It was a terrific event — enormous, energetic, information-rich, and even (unusual for the Pacific Northwest in springtime) blessed with sunshine.
The people were the best. Hundreds stopped by the Backwoods Home booth to buy books and back issues, share their stories, and cheer us on. Several showed up in t-shirts with an odd name on them: Earthineer.
I knew Earthineer was a exhibitor in another part of the hall, and that they had purchased BHM subscriptions to be given free to those t-shirt wearers. But I knew nothing else. I didn’t have a clue what an Earthineer might be.
When I finally wandered over to their booth on a break, I quickly went from being ignorant to feeling as though its people were members of my extended family. Young Dan Adams, creator of Earthineer, and “grumpy old man” Don Adams (his father, who was actually anything but grumpy) welcomed me in and introduced me to their brand-new pride and joy.
But what is Earthineer? And more important, why should Backwoods Home readers know about it and use it?
Earthineer is a website. The most glib description might be “Facebook for farmers.” It’s an online site where gardeners, beekeepers, home brewers, small herdsmen, orchardists, alternative-energy technicians, and do-it-yourselfers can meet, swap information, read about each others’ accomplishments, and eventually even set up trade networks. Dan Adams calls it “a social network for sustainable living.”
I know some BHM readers just plain aren’t interested in spending time on computers — let alone doing “social networking.” Social networking sounds to many people (including me) like a synonym for “wasting time.” But if you take even a few minutes to visit Earthineer, you might decide you want to make an exception.
Go to the site (www.earthineer.com), have a look around, and see how it could serve you.
First, you come to a welcome page. It asks you to join up or sign in. You don’t have to do either unless you want to. Click on “I just want to read the blogs,” and Earthineer opens up to you. You’ll be taken straight to a “Community” page, where you can read member-submitted articles on such topics as “Urban Chickens,” “Experiments with Wool Mulch,” “The Electric Car Saga,” and “A Solution for the Gardener’s Bane — WEEDS!”
Members submit these articles (called blogs). Other members can comment, ask questions, and offer links to helpful information. Become a member (it’s free and not snoopy) and you can ask for or offer advice, post about your own achievements, post photos of your giant pumpkins, your new goat kid, or your homegrown solar-power system. You can seek out others who share your interests — whether your interests be: gardening, preserving, and canning; seasonal cooking; beer and wine-making; crafts; keeping livestock; homesteading; beekeeping; or more.
Beginner or experienced, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about connecting with people who want to take care of themselves and their families. There’s even an interactive equivalent of “Ask Jackie” — with multiple experts standing in the place of that one irreplaceable woman. Dan says, “I’ve always been fond of BHM’s ‘Ask Jackie’ column. We could all use a mentor like her. Community Questions are like an ‘Ask Jackie’ question that is posted for the whole community to answer. Earthineer will even help find the ‘experts’ for you. If you have a beekeeping question, for instance, Earthineer will email anyone who says they can answer beekeeping questions and direct them to your post.”
Parts of the site are still in development, but might prove very handy once they’re online. A trading feature is in the works, for example, which could help you sell your wares and find others to sell you (or barter for) what you don’t produce for yourself.
Here’s how it will work. You’ll create seasonal lists of goods. Out of that list, you’ll select items that you have to trade, then items you’re looking for. For example, let’s say that you have chickens and can trade eggs. You’d like to find someone who can provide cheese. Search for local trading groups within driving distance, join one (or several), and post your list there. People can then respond and — voila! — you have others to trade with.
That feature isn’t complete as of the time I’m writing this — which is ironic because, as you’ll see below, Dan’s personal need for it inspired the whole site. But it may be ready by the time you read this, or very soon after.
Even we “lone wolves” are part of a vast and growing web of doers. We need each other to learn from and bargain with. Earthineer will be something unique to every user, but it’s shaping up to be fun and useful to everybody whose interests turn to self-reliance.
After the fair, I had a chance to ask Dan some questions about his creation.
Q. What’s your background — particularly what in your background led you to think up and create Earthineer?
A. I’ve been working as a software developer for some 13 years now. That’s not what led me to Earthineer; but it’s what made it possible.
Seven years ago, we built a 40×60-foot barn in southern Indiana. I mark that as the point that the idea of self-reliance germinated in my mind. While I continued to work in software development, I started re-skilling myself — rehabbing our house, planting and growing, seed saving, learning about soil and composting, canning, preserving, and pickling. All of this I did with the help of friends and family, and my father, in particular, who also instigated some of our crazier projects like building our own hydroponic unit and creating LED grow lights.
I was laid off in 2006, and in the same year started my own business as a software consultant. But soon, two things happened that made me question the direction that I was taking professionally. At the end of 2008, the economy tanked and in 2009 my son was born.
They were lean times, financially. Many companies were tightening their belts, and it was cheaper to outsource software development. It gave me a new perspective.
When I started working as a consultant, I had thought I’d be able to find time to work on projects that I was interested in. That wasn’t the case. Instead I was always busy with contract work.
You can read plenty of interviews with successful people where they give the advice “do what you love.” I had always dismissed that as trite. This time, I thought differently. I considered the “stability” of my job and what I would want for my son. I was determined to do something that I was passionate about.
Ultimately, that is what led me to develop the site. In Earthineer, I was combining what I knew (programming) with what I was passionate about.
Q. When and how did you actually start Earthineer?
A. I started work on Earthineer in 2009. I did it in my spare time (which was pretty minimal). In 2010, I began looking for another job because the consulting work wasn’t reliable at that point. I also went back to school, since I was being passed up for jobs because I didn’t have a Computer Science degree. In school, I decided to pursue a “passion project” for once. I asked if I could create Earthineer as an Independent Study project. I stopped taking consulting work, and dedicated myself full time to Earthineer.
I opened the site up to about 15 beta testers while I worked on it. Many of them told friends about what I was doing, and other people asked to join. I was nowhere near ready to have more people on the site, but I decided to open it up anyway. I just let everyone know it was a work in progress, and still “buggy.”
I opened it in late December of 2010. The next day I had over a hundred new users. Local media picked up the story and I ended up doing three newspaper interviews and one on radio. It made me a little nervous, because I wasn’t ready for that sort of attention yet. I backed off.
In fact, to this date, I have yet to actively pursue media interest. I haven’t even sent out a press release. I have a feeling this will take off on its own, so I’m not pressing it. Lately, I’ve had job offers, but I’ve turned them down to continue working on this. So yeah, I feel pretty strongly about what Earthineer could be. And if I’m right, I’ll have a job that I’d be happy doing. That’s something most people can’t say.
My wife has been incredibly supportive, too. Any success I may have with this, I owe much of it to her.
Q. Your dad Don was with you at the Puyallup fair, and he was a real kick. What’s his involvement with Earthineer? And what is his background?
A. My dad has been my co-conspirator in much of this. My interest in self-reliance skills rekindled his own (which he got as a child spending time on his grandparents’ farm), and he did something he hadn’t done in years — started a garden. My parents live in a suburban neighborhood. It’s almost comical to stand in their backyard and look out at the other yards with carefully manicured lawns and swimming pools. In contrast, my parents’ yard looks wild. He has a greenhouse where he puts his starts and grows cold-tolerant crops during the winter. Instead of grass or a swimming pool, he has rows of tomato plants, pole beans, okra, Hungarian peppers, garlic, onions, Thai eggplant, and various herbs.
His projects helped inspire creation of the site in the first place. He lends continued support and encouragement, he helped to fund it, and he continues to contribute regularly to the site.
By profession, he’s an electrical engineer, but he is a long-time DIY enthusiast. Growing up, I can recall hearing noises or catching a faint whiff of solder emanating from the basement, a sure sign that he was hard at work on a new project.
Most of his recent projects have been highlighted on Earthineer: making an electric car, cobbling together an ebb and flow hydroponic unit out of $50 in parts, creating a circuit board for LED grow lights, etc. His latest project (which started with a request from a member on Earthineer) has been working with vertical hydroponic “window farming.”
Q. What gave you the idea for Earthineer and what are your hopes for it?
A. My original idea had been to develop a trading application. My self-reliance goal was to grow and produce most of what I consumed, but I had one problem; I didn’t plan to be a full-time farmer. I needed to find a way to trade for what I didn’t produce.
The irony is that I still haven’t finished that part of Earthineer. I had to build the social network first, before I could start on the trading application. Once I started, Earthineer took on a life of its own, and I continued to come up with new ideas for the site.
There is an old English phrase: “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.” One of the difficulties in software development is that often, the developers know very little about the industry they’re writing code for. It’s a strange disconnect that can cause omissions in the process later on.
Earthineer has benefited from the fact that I actually use it, and as I pick up new skills and try new things, I find myself thinking of other ways to improve it.
I hope that the community flourishes and inspires other people. It’s also my hope that businesses will take it as an opportunity to become an active part of the community. I believe one of the downfalls of the money economy is that it has given anonymity to our business dealings. In the past, we valued local economies. We bought from people we knew and trusted. I want to know the people I’m buying from, and I believe the “community” aspect of Earthineer can help facilitate that.
Earthineer is still a work in progress. It’s already a busy, lively site, but over the next six months to one year new features will continue to be added. And as Dan says, Earthineer will keep evolving and growing, right along with the people who use it.