The high-tech redneck

The flipside of a high-tech life: Swapping my laptop for a tractor, I've headed back to the fields.

When I was younger and had boundless energy, it seems that I spent vast amounts of time online. I wasn't really into games, chatting, or other social pursuits, however -- I was completely and totally obsessed with how computers and networks function. I spent that time learning various computer languages; developing a close relationship with routing, switching, BGP, OSPF, spanning-tree, and other network technologies; building workstations and servers, and so on and so forth. I don't really recall a time when there was a clear distinction between work and nonwork; it all fell in the same pile. When I was building ISPs, there was always work to be done, day and night. As a consultant, that remains true. Testing and reviewing IT hardware and software follows those lines as well. I used to joke with friends that at some point, I'd give it all up and become a goat farmer.

Now it seems I actually am becoming a goat farmer.

Perhaps I'm slowing down somewhat. I still spend at least 10 hours a day in front of the computer, but at some point I began to need a separation from that world. I have apparently found it at the other end of the technological spectrum -- I'm getting into farming.

I have chickens and pigs, bought a tractor, and find myself actually enjoying heading out into the fields and getting "real work" done. It really couldn't be further from my normal routine. That's probably why it's so enticing. I spent most of this weekend stumping and clearing an overgrown field to prepare it for three new pigs. In the spring, I'll add the goats to fulfill my tongue-in-cheek prediction from years past.

Of course, while I'm out on the tractor pulling up 200-year-old tree stumps and running my trusty Stihl chain saw, my iPhone is in my pocket, and I have a strong Wi-Fi signal in the field. There's something very odd about sshing into a server to fix a minor problem while sitting on a running tractor.

I'm coming to this from the technical side, but there are many "real" independent farmers moving in a similar direction from the other end. This weekend, I headed out to Wellscroft Farm, a working farm with some spectacular views that also runs a business selling fencing supplies. In addition to its main focus on sheep and Border Collie breeding, the farm has pigs, goats, cattle, chickens, and hay fields, it has a large barn filled with fencing of every conceivable type. The barn is quite old but sturdy, and in an equally rustic connected building, five Dell workstations with flat-screen monitors sit, joined by a simple LAN, and connected to the Internet via what appears to be a microwave link to a distant building equipped with broadband. They sell online via their own Web site, and are surprisingly adept at leveraging the Internet in their business. Suffice it to say, I was impressed. I also bought several sections of electrified fencing, grounding rods, and other assorted parts.

From the farmers' point of view, properly using the Internet and technology is a means to grow their business -- it's a tool like a tractor or a York rake. Their apparent full-scale adoption of that technology is somewhat surprising. From my point of view, working in the fields and herding livestock is a way to reconnect with the tangible world, unlike my normal routine of working with SQL queries and herding bits. It's also equally surprising to my high-tech friends, many of whom think I may have lost my mind. However, I can say with certainty that homegrown eggs are mighty tasty.

I have some plans to run solar-powered Wi-Fi cameras out in the fields, perhaps even integrate a fence warning system that will send me an e-mail if the electric fence goes down, and temperature probes that will do the same if temps go out of range. I don't believe that SNMP-enabled solar fence energizers are readily available, so I might have to make those myself. I'm sure that large-scale agribusiness has all manner of automated monitoring and telemetry infrastructures, but I don't believe it's really trickled down to small-scale operations yet.

So far, my forays into farming have proven cathartic. I wonder if I'll still feel that way when I head out to feed the pigs in February with temperatures hovering around -10 degrees Fahrenheit.