The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm (Businessweek)

The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm (Businessweek, Nov 1, 2012):

Marcin Jakubowski sits cross-legged on the dirt floor of a round hut in Missouri farm country, carefully making an open-faced mayo and cheddar sandwich. Inside the hut there’s a bed, a small desk, a few plastic containers (including one for food), and, occasionally, mice and snakes. It’s 104F out and only slightly cooler inside. There’s no fridge, so just how the mayonnaise hasn’t spoiled is something of a mystery. Jakubowski, who’s of average height and extremely fit, wears khakis and a long-sleeve oxford shirt. “What we are doing here is conducting a civilization reboot experiment,” he says. He carefully places cheddar shreds on top of the mayo, squirts the works with Sriracha hot sauce in a precise cross-hatch pattern, bites, chews. “It’s about sustainable living and having open access to critical information and tools.”

Jakubowski’s hut anchors a 30-acre compound near Maysville, Mo., full of wooden shacks, yurts, work sheds, flapping laundry, clucking chickens, and a collection of black and strange-looking machinery. A dozen or so people in their twenties, none of whom appears to have bathed in a while, wander around or fiddle with the machines. Jakubowski has named the place Factor e Farm, though the goal isn’t just the cultivation of crops. Rather, it’s to create a completely self-sufficient community that produces not only its own food, but also energy, tools, and raw materials for making those tools. Jakubowski’s ultimate purpose is both to live off the grid and to teach others—whether out of choice or necessity—how to do so too.

In 2007, Jakubowski began working on a minimum set of machines necessary to sustain a modern civilization. It comprises bread ovens, aluminum smelters, tractors, brick presses, and 46 others. Factor e Farm has already built 15 of these devices, including a computer-controlled torch table that can cut intricate patterns on metal with a jet of superheated ionized gas. Work will com-mence soon on a cement mixer, a sawmill, and an industrial robot.

Photograph by Michael FribergA second-generation Life Trac tractor, built on the premises

Most of Factor e Farm’s equipment runs on an in-house invention called a Power Cube. It’s a black metal box about the size of an office copier, with a 27-horsepower engine that runs a hydraulic pump. The Power Cube’s engine can drive the bulldozers; the pumps can power the table saws and other smaller, stationary machines.

Jakubowski expects to have all 50 tools finished by 2015 and publishes progress reports on the Open Source Ecology website. He shares the designs for all the machines and produces how-to-make-it videos. He wants as many people as possible to take a crack at improving the designs.

Fifty tools aren’t a hedge against the apocalypse, although if most of civilization is wiped out, survivors with Factor e Farm plans may at least have something to work with. What Jakubowski is trying to prove is that people can live without the help of corporations. A few years ago, his attempts at utopia kept being undermined by the costs of repairing his farm equipment. So he decided to cut out the middleman and forge his own gear. “If you’re going to try to build any kind of sustainable, model community, you find out quickly that the tools you need break down and are expensive,” he says. “Without fixing this situation, you’re always left conducting business as usual.”

After Factor e Farm completes its “Global Village Construction Set,” Jakubowski expects communities around the globe to use these tools, spurring an explosion of innovation as people take his tractors and drills and build even better ones. Eventually, this virtuous circle will yield equipment rivaling that made by market-leading corporations—a tractor that is 90 percent as good as a John Deere (DE) at a fraction of the price. Showing up established corporations is critical to Jakubowski, because, he says, they spend too much time obsessing over patents, spending millions on commercials, and generally getting in the way of progress. “We are calling our work the Open Source Economy,” he says. “We can collaborate on the machines and publish everything openly. We can reduce all of this competitive waste. You have to start somewhere.”

Factor e Farm is about an hour north of Kansas City, Mo. To get there, you turn off a two-lane road onto a gravelly stretch that runs for about a mile before hitting the commune’s dirt driveway, which after about 100 yards leads to the main living and work areas. Jakubowski’s hut and two others form the heart of the compound. Nearby is a large, open-air workshop and a pair of his larger contraptions, a bulldozer and tractor that look like Mad Max’s take on a John Deere.

Jakubowski, 40, came to the U.S. from Poland at age 10 with his family. He graduated with honors from Princeton and later earned a doctorate in nuclear fusion physics from the University of Wisconsin. But he soured on the idea of a lifetime in academics. As he likes to say, he woke up one day to discover that he was “useless.” A steady diet of Indian food, yoga, and meditation persuaded him to take an active role in trying to solve the world’s less theoretical, more immediate problems. So he headed to Maysville and paid $60,000 for his plot of land.

For a few years, Jakubowski lived mostly alone. First, he built the hut. That backbreaking work persuaded him to build a brick press. Next, he constructed a workshop to make more tools, including the tractor. He posted videos on the Web and gained a following of DIYers. Now and again, a couple people would show up during the summer to help out, and they made huts alongside Jakubowski’s. That changed in early 2011, when he was invited to give a lecture at a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference.

In his TED Talk, Jakubowski took the stage in a khaki Mao suit and explained how he planted 100 trees in one day, pressed 500 bricks “from the dirt beneath my feet,” also in one day, and built a tractor in six. “If we can lower the barriers to farming, building, manufacturing,” he said calmly, “then we can unleash just massive amounts of human potential.” The goal, he said, is to create on one freely downloadable DVD a “civilization starter kit.” He ended the talk and received TED’s customary rapturous applause.

Since Jakubowski’s TED Talk was posted to YouTube (GOOG) in April 2011, it’s been viewed by more than 1 million people, around 500 of whom agreed to donate $10 or so a month to “subscribe” to the farm. The foundation of Mark Shuttleworth, a billionaire South African technology entrepreneur, gave Jakubowski $360,000 to pursue the work. The TED video even inspired a handful of hardy idealists to make a pilgrimage to Missouri and help out on the Factor e Farm. Then a few more showed up, some staying a week or two, some for months. By August 2012, there were 14 to 20 people staying on the farm at any one time, though it looked less like a farm than an unhygienic encampment for overeducated misfits.

Factor e Farm has 400 fruit trees, although none produce fruit in any meaningful quantity yet. A dilapidated greenhouse not far from the workshop has nothing but weeds growing inside. As a result, almost all of the farm’s food and supplies come from Wal-Mart (WMT) and other stores in nearby towns. “We are going through major growing pains,” Jakubowski explains. ˙

A curved dirt path runs from Jakubowski’s hut to the main workshop area. On either side of the path are yurts and shacks with clotheslines strung between them. An old toilet bowl is used for growing herbs; chickens and rabbits sit in cages awaiting food. About 200 yards past the yurts is a larger structure called the Hab Lab, which was built by a local carpenter as a barracks during the post-TED Talk overflow. It’s easy to find from the smell.

Bedrooms line one side of the building and a kitchen and bathrooms take up most of the other. Between them is a common area with a table, couches, and open buckets of rotting waste that, in the historic Midwestern heat wave of 2012, produce a sweet, gag-inducing stench that sticks to the lining of the nostrils. In the kitchen, strips of flypaper, covered in dead bugs, dangle from the ceiling. House chore schedules posted on the walls are largely ignored.

A half-dozen or so young Factor e farmhands live in the Hab Lab. Three came from Greece as part of an agricultural education program and spend the majority of their days watching cartoons online. What the Hab Lab lacks in plumbing, it makes up for in Wi-Fi. No one’s wearing shirts. There’s no air conditioning, and the straw stuffed into the mud walls for insulation doesn’t cool things down much.

Vann Miller, 39, keeps his Maserati parked in front of the Hab Lab. He’s a freelance software developer with homes in San Francisco, New Orleans, and now a secluded hexagonal yurt at Factor e Farm, where he’s lived for about a month. He stayed in the Hab Lab for a while but decided to build the yurt out of insulation panels from Home Depot (HD). “It took me a week to clear the site with a shovel and pickax,” says Miller. “I leveled it with gravel, which helps keep out the water and the animals.”

Miller has a 100-foot power cable stretching from an outlet in an old living area into his yurt, where a MacBook Air (AAPL) sits on a small, plastic table. He says his area of expertise—software coding practices that speed up project development—should up the tempo of Factor e Farm’s tool-building. “I have been holding orientation meetings and people seem to be adopting the agile-development techniques well,” he says.

The drinking water had been drawn from a well on the property, but the well and a filter couldn’t keep up with all the farm’s guests. “A couple of weeks ago, a few people started getting sick,” says Marshall Hilton, 28, an engineer from San Francisco. “We decided it might be the water and now don’t recommend that people drink it,” he says.

As with the other Factor e dwellers, Hilton’s bathroom is a 5-gallon bucket. “I am composting my own waste,” he says. “I line my bucket with about two inches of subsoil. Every time I make a deposit, I cover it with organic matter. I have my bucket in my yurt, and it’s sealed off. There are no bugs. Well, I mean, there are a few bugs.”

As part of the ground rules for my visit to the farm in July, I agree to help a squad of farmworkers build a set of rooms on the side of the Hab Lab. To really appreciate what they’re doing here, went the pitch, I should work beside them. So on the second morning of my visit I report for duty. The others never do. “That’s typical,” says John Marlatt, a local retired carpenter who showed up to lead the project. “The kids are always supposed to help, but usually they’re all inside and don’t do anything unless Marcin rustles them up. Oh, and don’t drink the water. Seriously. I mean it.”

The Hab Lab no-shows notwithstanding, there are some signs the farm may be getting its act together. Gabrielle LeBlanc has just been hired as the agriculture chief. She’s a 22-year-old from suburban Los Angeles who wears a tie-dye dress and has a “hemp history week” sticker on her laptop. “I am used to foraging for my food,” she says. “I enjoy being out with the birds and bugs.” LeBlanc studied animal science at the University of California-Davis. A couple days before my arrival, she had the farm pay $1,000 for a dairy cow (plus $30 for delivery), which she has named Good Cow and now keeps on the farm in a paddock enclosed by an electric fence. LeBlanc plans to get the greenhouse back in order before next planting season and to plant some crops and dig a pond. Hilton, one of the yurt-dwelling engineers, has been refining a DIY compressed-earth brick press and is hopeful he can turn it into something the farm can sell for $9,000 each. “The closest competitor is $45,000,” he says.

With his funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation and other organizations, Jakubowski says he plans to move from a volunteer workforce to an established team. He also wants to shift from a handful of haphazard projects taking place to doing a dozen at one time. He acknowledges it may seem odd to have food and building materials shuttled into a “self-sustaining” community from nearby supermarket chains and Home Depot. “Right now, we depend on off-the-shelf parts, but the point is we are building the machines we need for the next phase,” Jakubowski says. “Soon, we’ll build the components of the machines and then build the materials.”

By “build the materials,” Jakubowski means he would like to eventually extract the elemental natural resources for his tools as well. “We have techniques for aluminum extraction from clay,” he says. He wants to produce his own metal for robots and computers. He even intends to build his own computer chips by finding a supply of silicon and constructing a mini-semiconductor fabrication plant.

The Factor e Farm may seem crude now but, Jakubowski emphasizes, it’s just one node in the network he envisions. The answers will not all come from him or the farm. Other people will improve the designs, and, in time, a “distributed enterprise” will arise—a society in which the people have taken back control of their technology and lowered the basic cost for existence by several orders of magnitude. “That is the model for the next economy,” Jakubowski says. “By open-sourcing the entire production system, you can increase innovation by a hundredfold.” His rhetoric really soars when he begins to explain the “e” in Factor e. According to the commune’s website, “e” stands for “ecology, experiments, and exponents, evolving to freedom. E is a transcendental number. It is the growth rate of any natural system. E is our existence.”

Marlatt, the retired carpenter, agrees that Jakubowski can come across as eccentric, even delusional, but blames at least some of the farm’s disarray on this summer’s brutal drought. He’s cautiously optimistic. “This is most definitely a good idea,” Marlatt says. “America is in trouble, and the idea of being energy-efficient and knowing how to survive and build things is the right course.”

Come December, Jakubowski plans to start selling the brick presses and prove that the farm can make a profit of $5,000 per day from one of its machines. In the meantime, he’ll keep enduring the curious people who drive by the farm to peek at the strange folks building the strange contraptions. As Jakubowski tells the locals, “Look us up on the Internet. We are not thugs. We are trying to build a new civilization.”


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