Welcome to MyFarm

Last week I was one of 1000 people to join the UK-based MyFarm project in its first 48 hours. It’s being described in the press as a real-life FarmVille, but here’s how they describe it:

“MyFarm is a big online experiment in farming and food production, giving 10,000 members of the public a say in the running of a real working farm. The farm is on Wimpole Estate, near Royston in Cambridgeshire. The MyFarm Farmers will join forces on this website to discuss and make decisions on every aspect of the farm: the crops we grow, the breeds of animal we stock, the new facilities we invest in and the machinery we use. The aim of the farm is to be profitable, and to maintain the highest standards of sustainability and welfare.

[…]

The National Trust is the country’s biggest farmer. More than 80 per cent of the 250,000 hectares of land under our care is farmed in some way. We therefore consider it to be our role to reconnect people with farming, and to promote care for the land.”

For the past year I’ve been thinking and talking with people about related social and technological projects so I’m completely fascinated by the scale and complexity of this experiment. MyFarm needs at least 6500 subscribers to be financially viable, and 10000 subscribers to create an active online community of 250 people. I’m really curious to see how the subscribers break down geographically and demographically, and hope the National Trust makes that information public.

The actual farm is run by the Farm Team, led by Richard Morris (@farmermorris), and there are three main project themes: crops, livestock and wider impacts. The broader contexts of farming are obviously of interest to me, but I imagine that I’ll most closely participate in livestock matters. For example, I was instantly struck by how the project defined the relationship between people and animals:

“The first thing to say is that as a rule, we don’t give our animals names. Why? Because they’re not pets. They’re the produce of the farm – and they’re core to making the farm a viable business. That may sound harsh, but this is a real working farm, and that is the reality. You won’t be meeting Daisy the Cow at Wimpole. That said, they do have names of a sort – but these are practical pedigree names, which reflect a cow’s parenthood, heritage and date of birth; rather more like the names you and I have.”

The status of livestock as somewhere between pets and wild animals is familiar to most people, and I suspect that most people are also hesitant to get friendly with an animal that may be slaughtered. (Did anyone else notice that wasn’t brought up as a reason not to name a farm animal?) But I wonder how much non-farmers understand or agree that livestock’s primary identity is one of commodities that derive their value through what they have been bred to produce.

But more generally, if we can take the viewer statistics from MyFarm’s YouTube channel as an indicator, people are much more interested in the livestock than anything else: 2,150 people have viewed the livestock video to-date, while only 304 have watched the wider impacts video and 162 the crop video. Perhaps it has something to do with the farm’s commitment to raising rare breeds; it’s certainly been a lively topic in the discussion forum so far and I’m impressed by the unusual stock and the debates they will inevitably raise. For example, the farm raises five rare breeds of sheep for meat and wool: Portlands, Manx Loagthans, Hebrideans, Whitefaced Woodlands, Norfolk Horns and it’s easy to support efforts to ensure their survival. But it’s also easy to see how conservation and environmental values might conflict with market values, as traditional farming methods tend to be slower. (Part of the reason that some breeds became rare in the first place is because they were not as profitable as others.)

So how does all this virtual farming work? Farmer Jon–the man behind MyFarm–explains:

“It’s pretty simple really. We’ll have one big decision every month, or thereabouts. Right at the beginning, we’ll tell you what the question is going to be. The first one will be about what we should grow on the farm. Then we’ll spend a couple of weeks in the discussions exploring that question a little bit. What do we need to know to answer the question? What is the equivalent that we can all do at home to understand farming a little better? What possible answers can we rule out early, so that when we come to vote, we’re voting on decent options? This first month, we’ll talk a lot about soil types and climate on the farm. At that point, having taken part in the discussions with us, Richard will set out his recommendation for the options for us. We’ll have a couple of days to make sure we’re happy with those options – then we vote. The vote will stay open for about a week, giving everyone plenty of time to have their say. We’ll close at the appointed time, and whatever gets the most votes, we’ll do!”

Cool. The first vote is on 26 May, when we’ll decide what to plant in one of the key fields. But, understandably, it won’t be a free-for-all:

“Now, we don’t just want to chuck the reins to you and say ‘Do whatever you like!’ This isn’t a Facebook game – it’s a real farm, with real decisions and real consequences. We won’t stop you making mistakes – we’ll need to make some mistakes along the way if we’re really going to learn anything new by doing this – but we do need to manage the risk with you at least a little bit.”

Fair enough. And for my part, I’ll post here around every vote in an attempt to summarise the discussions and reflect on the decisions, as well as document my experiences as a virtual farmer. I’m really looking forward to this, so let the experiment begin!