Farming Is Like System Administration

04Jul08

My father-in-law grows corn and soybeans in rural Minnesota.  I’m currently spending a week on this farm visiting with my in-laws and trying not to work too hard (ha!).  Yesterday I helped empty a grain bin into a semi trailer for sale at the local grain elevator.  For me, this whole task was very like system administration. It was a lot of easy but repetitive labor, and every few minutes I came up with some idea to reduce the amount of work I would have to do.

An Example

The grain bin has a flat bottom with a hole in the middle.  When the bin is full, grain runs through this hole like sand in an hourglass, is transported horizontally by an auger, and finally is dumped into the trailer via another auger.  At a certain point the grain will no longer be pulled into the hole by gravity alone, and so there are secondary holes all the way along the auger.  Even these holes will not allow the bin to fully empty, so there is a rotating auger in the bottom that sweeps around moving the last bits of grain to the holes.   Even with that sweeping auger, it is still necessary to get in there with a broom and shovel and push the grain to the hole in order to fully empty the bin.

Some Automation Solutions

After a few minutes of this, it seemed to me that the ridges in the floor should be radial so that sweeping grain to the middle is easier.  The straight ridges there now made it easy in some directions and really difficult in others.

Next, I thought that an inverted cone design would reduce the manual labor to almost nothing and remove the need for multiple holes.  Combined with the radial ridging and some kind of vibration, I think you could get all but a few stray grains into the hole without ever getting into the bin.

Inventing Is Like Perl

It finally made sense to me in a visceral way why farmers are such prolific inventors.  System administrators try to reduce their tedious labor to zero;  farmers want to do the same.  No one wants to spend all their time typing the same commands or shoveling piles of grain.  The classic tool of sysadmins for this is Perl, but until robotic farming is more widespread, farmers will have to settle for repurposing or inventing physical solutions.

Just like Perl, some of these solutions are elegant, like the auger, and some are complete disasters.

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