Software Farming
February 21, 2007 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Software Farming. Can you think of a software/internet equivalent to small-time agricultural farming?

I've recently encountered the urge to eschew the stress of modern workplace environments and to live happily (and poorly) ever after as an independant small-time farmer.

Seeing that my education and work experience are completely focused in the software development world, I realize that naively jumping into agriculture might not be the best of plans.

In lieu of working with dirt, can you think of a software/internet occupation that is analogous to being an independent small-time farmer?
posted by jsonic to Work & Money (12 answers total)
Shareware developer? Freelance web application developer?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:03 AM on February 21, 2007

Response by poster: More specifically, farmers produce commodities (ie. corn, wheat, soybeans,...). They do not necessarily have to advertise or create their own markets in order to sell their product. They work by, and for, themselves all year, and then sell their product in a commodities marketplace.

Is there a software/internet equivalent commodity? Besides gold-farming in Warcraft?
posted by jsonic at 9:17 AM on February 21, 2007

The thing that immediately occurred to me was blogging/otherwise maintaining a website and surviving off the revenue from AdSense. However, you do have to create your own market in some sense.

The problem here is that the internet doesn't contain anything that anyone needs. Despite what we all may think, nobody's going to die of Firefox extension starvation. So the idea of "commodities" is illusory.

If it's any consolation, it's almost impossible to make a living as a small-time farmer these days, or so I hear. So you're not missing out on much there.
posted by crinklebat at 9:22 AM on February 21, 2007

Amazon's mechanical turk. You probably won't make enough money to live off this, but it's probably the nearest analog to what your talking about.

The thing is, software and commodity crops operate in such radically different markets that I don't think you can realistically find good equivalents. Agriculture is heavily regulated, subsidized, and (from the farmer's POV) monopsonistic, except for boutique operations. And whoever heard of organic coding?

However, coding can be like agriculture in the sense that an hour of (say) PHP/MySQL development time is somewhat standardized, and there are efficient clearinghouses for matching buyers with sellers. If you wanted to just take a functional specification from a faceless customer and convert it into working code, there are plenty of options out there.
posted by adamrice at 9:58 AM on February 21, 2007

I'm have at one time been intimately involved in both farming and software development, and I'm sorry, but I can't think of a more discongruous pair of outlooks on life and daily activites as farming and software developement.

Farming is... hitting a boulder that is stuck between the wheels of dual tired tractor with a sledgehammer until it breaks and falls out. Software Developement is... typing out a bunch of S-boxes because "it's safer that way". I guess both of these make your hands hurt, but these are completely different activities to the core.

I can go on and on, but I think it mainly comes down to this: in farming, there is no acretion of what you are selling (food in farming, solutions in software development), whereas most good software developement encourages you to build upon what has been previously done. Think of using C instead of assember, or, using well written modules you can re-use, or using a pre-made CMS. In farming, you are taking the energy from the sun and the stored nutrients in the soil and selling it. Each year (or half year) you start over. You cannot use another farmer's crop to increase your yield.
posted by sleslie at 9:58 AM on February 21, 2007

I've been working on building my own business, and something that apparently doesn't exist, but would make whoever figured it out tons of money, is automated state taxation software for internet businesses.

My understanding is that whenever someone sells a product, wherever it meets the hands of the consumer is supposed to be the state-taxation rate for that product, but all of these systems are independently developed. While that's fine for Amazon, anything small has to have someone sit down and hand-calculate this information.

I've been told people would fall all over themselves for a universal system for this. Maybe try that?
posted by troubadour at 10:14 AM on February 21, 2007

Response by poster: adamrice: Amazon's mechanical turk. You probably won't make enough money to live off this, but it's probably the nearest analog to what your talking about.

Awesome. Different from my original thoughts, but definitely works towards the same goal of work independence (albeit quite slowly at the rates available).

b1tr0t: Perhaps you should take some time to enumerate what you don't like about your current software work, and what you think farming might offer to you

I'm not unhappy with software, its actually quite lucrative. The essential difference I'm using farming to point out is that of working for someone else (employee, contractor, customer demands) versus working completely for yourself (essentially) by producing a commodity. I'm looking for a software/internet equivalent of this work independence.

Of course, this is all at a conceptual level currently, so the reality of each situation will have complexities.
posted by jsonic at 11:37 AM on February 21, 2007

I think the agriculture equivalent of an independent (not freelance) application programmer would be organic farming. Your product is a commodity (code that does X) that can be sourced for less at lower quality (i.e. outsourcing to india), but people will pay a premium for applications that are well-written and well-supported.

When you're a farmer, you're not truly working for yourself. You're working for the people who are buying your baskets. This is similar to the programmer that builds shareware games in Flash or another platform -- you predict what they want, you develop to meet their expected needs six months from when you start (i.e. when your product is ready -- whether it be vegetables or software) and then you're responsible for marketing through the direct means of Farmers Markets and subscription CoOp Baskets (websites and trade shows) and the indirect means of food stores and restaurants that feature organic food (Other people's websites, game distributors).

If you still want to explore organic, sustainable farming -- save up a few years worth of substinance living expenses, put your stuff in storage, and go live at an organic commune or somewhere similar with people who already have farms running. The only way to learn dirt is to get dirty, and starting a farm without any first-hand physical knowledge of how to farm -- and the backbreaking, dirty work it entails -- are doomed to failure. But from what I understand from several friends who are attempting such a venture right now, it's a pretty rewarding lifestyle, but they certainly aren't getting rich.

In the meantime, I'm pretty happy with a low-stress day job as an app developer for a very cool area of a rural university, and then consulting at night. I make as much as my sister who lives in SFO and works for BigMegaCorpCoInc and my living costs are approximately 1/3 of hers, which also helps with stress.
posted by SpecialK at 1:06 PM on February 21, 2007

Response by poster: Can you say more about what you are looking for in "work independence?"

Having control of when, how much, and what I do with-respect-to work each day.

If you decide to work as an employee or contractor, many of these decisions are controlled by others. With that type of work, you are essentially trading some freedom in exchange for better pay, and maybe some job security if you are a salaried employee.

This isn't a terrible setup, and we in the software world probably have more day-to-day leeway with our work than more traditional industries have.

Of course, it is possible to make money without trading this freedom. Commodities, with an efficient marketplace, allow you to sell the fruit of your labor without having other people control your day-to-day life. As long as people want that commodity, you just make enough of it to cover your needs. You have more leeway in how and when you accomplish this.

The crux of the issue is figuring out if this is feasible, or if the commodity price is so low (due to competition) that covering one's monetary needs would be impossible.
posted by jsonic at 1:29 PM on February 21, 2007

Check out this article. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of why you don't want a day job, so you might want to skip down to the "Happily jobless" section.
posted by benign at 2:06 PM on February 21, 2007

I am a software developer and a small-time organic vegetable farmer. Despite what some folks have said here, the two are indeed very similar, and I've found one to interact with the other in wonderful and surprising ways. See Programming is Gardening, not Engineering for more on this.

It turns out that there were several recurring problems faced by many growers like me, mostly in the areas of organization and marketing. I happened to be in the right place with the right skillset to largely solve some of those problems, and now I get treated like a rockstar. It's been a pretty neat overlap.

Anyway, my answer to you is don't necessarily look for something other than small-time farming to scratch your itch. The world needs more market gardeners, many many more. But every single one makes a profound difference to their community. If you've ever had a vegetable garden, you'll be able to make the jump to a larger garden. And the next year, a larger garden. And so on. And if you've never even done that, find a grower near you (they're out there, no matter where you are) and get hired on as help for a season so you can see what it's all about. Then next year, start your garden.
posted by ewagoner at 6:09 PM on February 21, 2007

... (small time farmers live vastly more stressful lives than software developers) ...

To go slightly O/T with this (and because it might help jsonic to consider things a bit deeper than just "eschew the stress of modern workplace environments") : that's plenty arguable. You can't say "his stress is bigger / worse than her stress" across causes - at least, not until you find out how much breaks each person individually, and then you can only say something like "yeah, we'll call that 100% stress".

What's inarguable is that different things stress different people, and result in different effects. What stresses Developer A into a catatonic state might be nothing to Farmer B, and what causes Farmer B to crumble might be "yeah, so what?" to Developer A.

Having said that: you don't know when, or how much, or what will stress will hit you until it does. The grass over there may look much greener, but it might be just as toxic to you as the grass you're currently standing on. And, if you're currently burning out from stress, it's likely you now - for a while at least - have a low tolerance for *any* cause of stress.
posted by Pinback at 8:39 PM on February 21, 2007

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