Some of you may or may not know that I am a tech guy by day. I currently work at Dell as an architect on some of dell.com. In this role I am always trying to optimize how I get through my day and how the teams I work with get through their day. Of course a lot of this bleeds over into my alternative life style as a sustainable family farmer. In my world I follow a guy named Scott Hanselman. Of all the great things he does for the programming community his annual tools list is one of my favorite resources. So I figured I would start putting together a yearly post of tools that I use in my day to day life as a farmer. Some of these bleed over from my tech life. But that probably isn’t a bad thing.
Efficiency, Time Management, and Automation
If This Then That (IFTTT)
If this then that (known as IFTTT http://www.ifttt.com) is a great internet service that allows you to compose a “trigger” and “action” recipe. This has worked great for me in many ways.
Think about a farmers day to day tasks. I am always planning my projects around “is it going to rain tomorrow” or “is it going to snow tomorrow”. So I set up a recipe on IFTTT.com that sends me an email when the weather is going to change in a manner that interested me.
Here is the weather recipe: https://ifttt.com/recipes/126677
I am also always building or fixing something on the farm. I try to keep my stock yard full of general construction materials so that I am ready when something hits. Just the other day I needed some cinder blocks and bricks to get my truck unstuck from the mud. If I didn’t have them I would have had to buy something else. But why buy them when I can just set up a recipe to watch for someone else throwing perfectly good bricks away. To do that I set up a recipe that watches my local craigslist for a specific “free cinder blocks” search. When a new entry is found I am emailed with the listing. This also helps me be a first responder to such deals. I get in the truck and immediately go pick them up. This works for plywood, door jams, pvc pipe, electrical wire, and just about all other building supplies. Be prepared to have to take the whole offering with you…not just what you wanted. But this can be fun!
Here is the cinder blocks recipe: https://ifttt.com/recipes/126678
You can do so much more with it as there are a whole bunch of “channels” in the system. A Channel is a provider of triggers and actions. An example of this is “trigger: I post something on my farms facebook page” and “action: I would like that copied to my farms twitter account”. Both Facebook and Twitter are channels in the system and I simply need to marry the two bits that I am interested in and BAM…I have automated a task off of my todo list.
Google Alerts (http://www.google.com/alerts) is a tool that gives me somewhat similar capabilities though much more simplified than IFTTT. With Google Alerts I can set up a search query and then subscribe to it via email or rss. This allows me to do interesting things such as monitor any time someone mentions me by name or mentioned my farm by name. Any time Google finds something new with “Friendly Pastures” some how mentioned it Google emails me the page where this happened (or you can subscribe via RSS). I consider this key to monitoring my internet self as well as seeing what folks are saying about me.
This of course can be morphed to do all sorts of things. Watch for sales prices on a given widget. Point alerts at craigslist if you like. Anything you find yourself searching for frequently can be put behind an alert so you don’t have to do it manually any more.
If you are a super task oriented person then toodledo (to-dul-E-do) is for you (that was fun to say right?). I have tried out a number of task management tools. ToDo tools. This one has a great a good site and great mobile apps. It allows me to organize my tasks in a few ways. I can put them in a folder. I can tag them multiple times with interesting meta data. I can assign a context to them (barn, shop, home office, work office, grocery store, etc.). Then I can filter my tasks in all sorts of way to drill into what needs to be done. I can set recurring tasks. I can apply priority to them. I can set due dates. If you are a nazi about getting things done…this is the todo tool for you.
I loved Trello when I was a task nazi. Then I realized that I wasn’t ever going to get all of it done. That I only had so much time to do any one thing. And while I could be busy doing tasks at all hours of the day (I am still somewhat guilty of this) I only have so many hours to spend with my family. So I moved to a new system. Kanban. This is a form of Agile (which we use in software development). Kanban is a method of managing your todo items that has a column of items that need to be done. You can sort the items in that list (usually based on priority). Then you can pull an item to work on. When you are done with that item you push it to a done bucket of items and go get another task to do. This is much less anal and therefore has less configurability.
I choose to treat my Kanban board as a semi agile environment in that I create several columns:
Backlog – work that is prioritized by importance (whatever that means to you).
Sprint Backlog – work that I would like to get done this week.
In Progress – things that I am in the middle of at the moment.
Block – tasks that I can’t start or complete for some reason.
Trello is a great free tool that allows me to create different task boards and manage those tasks appropriately. I have a board for each major area of my life. One for work. One for family (and the family works off of this board too). One for each of my side projects. One for my farm’s business. Etc. This way what ever I feel like working on, I can open that board, and pull the next task.
The Google calendar is a great free tool for managing your meetings and other important dates. It syncs to most phones. If you are a slave to Outlook and Exchange at work you can get utilities to sync your work calendar to your personal Google Calendar so that all of your important appointments are in one place.
Windows Live Writer
I am a major fan of Windows Live Writer. If you blog at all (and if you own a small farm or a small business that does anything interesting…you should blog) then you need a tool that makes composing your post dead simple. I like WLW because it is the tool that is most like Microsoft Word that I could find that knows how to take what I write on the desktop and put it in the cloud. In my case, I built my own blog engine works with my content management system but that knows specifically how to interact with WLW. In fact…working with WLW was the first requirement for my blog software!
The best thing for non-technical people is that WLW integrates with so many free blogging platforms out there that it is really just a matter or creating a blogging account somewhere, downloading WLW, configuring your new blog account, and writing your first post.
Once setting up your blog is done writing a blog post is super easy. You write it. Drag an image into WLW into the middle of your words. Hit publish. Done. WLW takes care of converting your text to proper html, uploading the images to the host of your blog, etc.
This is the first tool I install on a new computer.
Scoop.It is a neat way to get your content that is already out there even further out there. The more places you can get to see you the more people you are likely to get to see you. For this reason I like to create topics in Scoop.it. This allows me to write a blog post on my website. Then post a link to that new content into Scoop.it which then suggests the content to other folks topics. This just helps you get more traffic.
Also, as the curator of a topic, other things that I find interesting of the same vein can be sorted next to my content which helps give me a boost.
The other added benefit to running topics is that this system gives me suggested content that I might like for my topic…which is usually content that I myself would be interested in reading.
I still come across so many people that just don’t do Facebook. To them I say ok…I get it. But to someone trying to market their services to other people you really shouldn’t avoid Facebook pages and/or groups. Figure that the majority of the people in the world are on Facebook. You can go hyper local with your offering (as is the case with sustainable farmers) or you can go global (as you should with your reputation). Think of facebook pages as a gateway to your customers and future customers. They are on it every day following their family, posting about things they are interested in, and then a notification from you pops up that they are going to naturally be curious about. It keeps them in touch with you in as near as real time as you can get without picking up the phone.
In todays world where it is cool to eat organic, local, grass fed, sustainable food. The people want to see what you are up to. That is the norm. They once again want to know their farmer and how their food is being raised.
Knowledge and How To
Whenever I need to know how to do something I turn to Youtube. I can do this on my mobile as well. An example of this is the following:
How do I castrate a pig and when? “…and I just pull and rip!” We did this with our last batch. Worked great.
Google Image Search
(http://www.google.com/images) YouTube is great if I know exactly what I am looking for. But sometimes I don’t yet have enough information to query YouTube efficiently. This happened when I first got started with aquaponics. I didn’t know anything about the fancy Aquaponics terms or all the different ways that one could grow in an aquaponics world. I did know that one word though. This is where Google’s Image search can come in really handy. One quick search for “Aquaponics” and a whole new world is open to you.
Using image search you see all sorts of new ideas. Most of the images for each new idea is hosted on someone’s blog which you can bookmark for later using Feedly (mentioned below) or you can save a specific article into Instapaper (mentioned below). With each rabbit hole investigation I can slowly build up my vocabulary for a new topic. Then I can go to YouTube and really dive in the how to do something side of the equation.
In the programming world there is one location that I can go to to get help in near real time for just about any programming related problem and that is StackOverflow.com. The makers of that platform also created a site called StackExchange which allows other groups of folks to host their topics on the same platform. I found a great location for farmers that are sustainable farming oriented at http://sustainability.stackexchange.com. On that site you can post your question and get answers very quickly. But it isn’t a forum in that the experience doesn’t suck. It is like a forum and wiki and help desk all rolled into one. And if you are so inclined you could use this as an avenue of marketing if you are a subject matter expert on a given topic.
I try to follow all aquaponics posts. You can do this by subscribing to a tag so that you will be notified of any new questions. This helps me to learn about common problems people are having. But it also pushes me to learn the answer to their problem. Which helps me if I am ever to have that problem down the road. But I also find researching a question shows you answers to so many other questions.
This also helps to get your name and your farm out into the world.
I used to be a major fan of Google Reader for aggregating all the blogs that I was interested in reading. Probably the next best product Google ever created next to Search. But they closed it because they weren’t making money off of it.
But no worries! There were several folks that jumped in to fill their spot. Feedly is the winner for me. Their web offering has at least all of the Google Reader features and then some. And the site was recently made so it is starting off polished. And you can get access to all the feeds you are interested in reading no matter where you are.
If you have found someone interesting that you like to read now and then, don’t book mark them in your browser at home, add them to Feedly and read them anywhere.
Feedly is great for aggregating blog posts. However, I also like to read articles. I bump into articles all over the place and I need to read later. Also, occaisionally I will read a mind blowing blog post that I just don’t want to lose. For this type of web information I like to use Instapaper. Not only are they good at saving something to read for later, but they also give me a stripped down view of that content (no ads, no nav bars, no fluff). This makes for great non-distracting reading.
Also think of them as an aggregator of things I read so that I can easily get back to important research later.
PayPal here (or square)
For my business being able to take payments of any kind at any time is very important. If I have something to sell with a potential buyer in front of me right now I need to be able to make change or accept credit cards. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone. But if you sell your goods at a farmers market, being able to display an “I take credit cards” will get you more traffic. People don’t seem to carry cash much any more. And I generally don’t take checks. Debit cards are everywhere there! Even when I go running I take a debit card.
For that I chose to go with the PayPal offering of “PayPal Here”. This device plugs into your mobile device (tablet or phone) and allows you to take a transaction into your paypal account. I liked this simply because I already have a PayPal account. And that account is directly linked to my bank account. And I have a debit card tied to that PayPal account. This means that as soon as someone pays me I have direct and immediate access to that money. Or I can easily move it over to my regular bank account.
Some folks use another service which is very similar called “Square”. Both of these offerings are very similar. I compare them often and find that which one is cheaper or offers more swaps frequently as they are direct competitors.
The big difference for me is that PayPal is owned by Amazon (another company I am heavily invested in), has been around for quite some time, already has business from me in other areas. So that is the direction I went.
The key take away here is to have the means to take credit cards via your mobile phone at all times!
Quick books online
(http://quickbooks.intuit.com/online) Another tool that you can’t pass on for operating a small business such as a farm is Quick Books Online. This has all sorts of accounting features but the couple that stand out most to me as a farmer is that it is on my phone and therefore in my pocket at all times. I can keep all of my customers in this system so that they are also with me everywhere I go. I can easily generate an estimate, invoice, or receipt, and email them to the customer even when I am in the middle of stringing a hot wire to keep the pigs from escaping.
And, since I am not an accountant, I can share all of my accumulated data with my CPA – also from the field.
(http://www.dropbox.com) If you work at home or are running a super small business then you are probably using a free (or next to free) email service that caps the size of the attachments that you can send to customers, publishers, etc. No worries. Check out DropBox. I like drop box because I can work on a file at my home computer and save it on my DropBox drive. The file then shows up on my work computer. And it shows up on my mobile devices. But even better, I can share files to friends, co-workers, publishers, or customers. And it is super easy. Also, because the file is replicated everywhere and backed up on DropBox I never lose my files even when a computer crashes.
Rob Torcellini’s TrackMyPlant.com
TrackMyPlant.com is a great way to help manage your growing cycles. This particular tool is aimed at helping the aquaponic gardner maximize their learnings and investment in planting. The key for me is to see year over year when you had successes and failures and adjust as you go.
Google Drive is very similar to DropBox in that it gives you a hard drive on the internet that is always backed up and secure. It is also shareable. But this particular drive allows you to create word like documents, spread sheets, slide shows, etc. all via a web page and your mobile phone. And its free.
This means you have a full suite of office tools on the go with you anywhere you are located.
I personally use this to manage my pre-sales of a given item. Verbal commitments on a given thing so that I know how hard to market it prior to sales. I also use it to share business documents to employees, customers, etc.
Google Apps is a full back office offering to a small business that lets you create a company website, host business email, share a calendar and documents, etc. It is very similar to what you get with Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive, with many enhancements. The use of this is usually a question of how big and polished you want your business to be. And how much of the IT management you want to take on yourself. A worthy tool for someone with many employees and no IT staff.
Flash light app
A farmer doesn’t work regular sun up hours. I find myself in the barn before the sun comes up tinkering on projects or taking care of my critters. And when I get home after work I find my self out tending fence or doing some more critter chores. As often as I find myself in the dark I like to have a light on me at all times. And sense I always have my phone on me it makes sense to have a flash light app installed on my phone at all times.
I am not going to suggest any one particular tool. As long as it turns on your camera flash to be used as a light it is probably good enough.
A better app will also show your current battery level and alert as it gets low.
Do you water messy animals? Me too. Pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep come to mind right away. My pigs knock their water over. The chickens poop in their water. The goat is a fool.
For that reason I have started moving all of my animals over to a nipple based watering system.
With the chickens in the chicken tractor we have a water bucket that sits on top of the tractor and trickles water via PVC pipe down into the tractor. The nipples are then exposed via the pipe inside the tractor. I am planning to move this to a two pipe system to cover when the birds are smaller and then when they are bigger (a few weeks later). Keep the water bar back against the wall so that the birds don’t feel like sitting/roosting on the pipes.
My pigs are watered from an elevated 55 gallon blue barrel. The barrel sits on top of cinder blocks that are stacked two blocks tall. This puts the water nipple (which is at the bottom of the barrel) at the height of the pigs mouth. Keep in mind that the nipples don’t push through a lot of water out of the box. I disassemble the nipples and drill out the adjustable plastic disk inside to deliver the most water possible. I still water the piglets from a creep area with a shallow water dish. They bathe in this of course.
Nipples can be found for just about all the animals. Just be sure to check them daily to ensure that your animals are never without water.
The fodder system doesn’t make me more efficient in that I am now growing food for the food I am growing for my family. But it saves me money. And it ensures that I have a constant priced food source regardless of the price water, hay, etc. My well is pretty much free. I can find high quality low cost seed all over the place. And the room I grow in is temp controlled year round. This allows me to always have cheap feed on hand for all my critters.
If you are a farmer then you care about the weather. Take a look at the Weather Underground at wunderground.com. The site is good but go pick up the mobile app. It will keep you up to date in near real time using local weather stations. I have one only a few miles away from me and it gives the most up to date realistic weather I could ever hope to ask for (short of having one of their weather stations in my back yard…which is pretty cheap). This is pretty cool for folks that aren’t farmers!
I had to add this even though I haven’t done it yet (but intend to get one this christmas). The tech in drones has gotten so reliable and cheap that having a drone on the farm (big or small) makes total sense. A cheap $300 quad copter which comes with two cameras can be purchased and linked up to your phone as the remote. You can then fly the copter out to your barn to check your pigs, horses, chickens, etc. It can be used to capture pictures of various animals regardless of where they are (all animals get used to this device). Or if you need to go up on the roof of your barn to check something – send the drone. Or send the drone out to check the fence line. I look forward to being able to send the drone out to the field to check something for me so that I can load the truck with the appropriate tools need to fix a problem.
I have flown the Parrot AR Drone from my Android Tablet and had no problems at all. It took me seconds to get comfy flying it.
Here is a great example of using a drone on the farm to bring the critters up:
What tools help you?
If you don’t see a tool on here that you use all the time to help manage your day please send it to me. Especially if it will help a small farmer work more efficiently. Either contact us of send us an email and we will update this post with your helpful additions!