Notes from Windward: #70


Of Chickens, Goats and Microchips


     Farm life wasn't new to me when I applied for an internship at Windward, and that's what I advertised. I don't know what devil rode me when I jokingly, almost accidentally, added that I also had some experience with microcontrollers, but I'm glad I did.

This solar food dryer contains elderberries

     When I hear the words "sustainable" and "farm," I usually think of closed-cycle systems, small-scale animal husbandry, organic gardening, solar food dryers and, foremost, of community. Windward is all that, and much more. In fact, it is so much more, it can't always be everything it is, at once.

     Even at Windward, days only have 24 hours. There is a limit to how much work any given number of people can perform and a limit to the number of people any place can sustain, but no limit to the ideas for projects, improvements, and research a group of passionate, inspired and highly-motivated people can come up with. With so many possible applications, it is important to direct human labor to the most worthy efforts.

Lindsey harvesting cucumbers in the
"Duck-Ponics" vegetable garden

     A microcontroller is a tiny little computer that uses sensor and program data to make autonomous decisions, i.e. switching fans, lights, pumps, valves or motors on and off, or to sound an alarm if there is a problem that requires human attention. All that sensor data can be automatically stored and indexed for both long-term research and immediate oversight.

     In short, a microcontroller can take over a lot of monotonous, repetitive tasks, so we humans can spend more time retrofitting trucks to run off wood gas, building solar-steam generators and growing the greatest tomatoes north of the Columbia River.

     The only crux is, someone has to sit down and tell these little CPUs exactly what to do, teach them how to interact with humans and make sure that they have the necessary hardware to deal with their responsibilities. That, in a nutshell, will be the primary focus of my internship.

Arduino Duemilanove project board

     The people here are well aware of the potential these little digital Oompa-Loompas harbor. Inside "Bravo," my humble residence for the time-being, is a work desk with a peculiar assortment of electronic components and a variety of Arduino-based microcontroller systems. I am told that a number of interns have worked on these Arduino sets, with mixed results. Now it is my turn to try and make this binary flotilla sea-worthy, setting Windward, I hope, on course to a semi-conducting, interconnected future.

     Two years have past since I wrote my last line of microcontroller program code, and there are reasons for that. A programmer's world can be a lonely one, filled with abstract rules, problems and solutions. It is a state of being that puts an uncomfortable distance between me and any tangible reality.

The chickens are waiting for some
fresh wheat sprouts

     At first I felt reluctant, but Windward turned out to be a true game changer for me. My work here benefits and furthers causes I believe in with all my heart: renewable energy and sustainable communal living, and researching and developing working solutions today for an evermore uncertain future.

     Being involved with intelligent automation at Windward promises to be a rewarding process. My personal balance comes from working as a team on animals, gardening, forestry and construction, from a strong sense of purpose and community. I stay grounded in the most real sense, with dirt under my fingernails and a smile on my face.

One of the cute Nubian-Boer bucklings

     A hundred miles from nowhere is my favorite place to be: breathing crisp morning air as I walk to milk the goats, picking pine needles out of my hair after an afternoon working in the forest, watching chickens fight for kitchen scraps. And then sometimes, on crystal clear nights, I can hear the microchips whispering in the dark, waiting for their great debut.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70