A Glimpse At The Future Of Farming
At Greenwell Farms, we host guests from around the world every day and share our farming operation with them. Over the last few years of doing farm tours, there are two themes that seem to constantly re-emerge.
One theme is from those who live in urban communities who say, “I never knew so much was involved in making a cup of coffee.” The second theme is from our fellow farmers and ranchers from across our country who are “in the know” and share a deep understanding of what it means to be in agriculture. No matter what crop you are bringing forth from the land, it is always relentless and persistent work. Today I’d like to salute those farmers and give you a sketch of how the farming world is growing into the future.
Our Shared Past
In the days of hunting and gathering, humans roamed huge swaths of land looking for animal or vegetable matter that could sustain them. Nomadic in nature and susceptible to all of the ups and downs that are the cycles of nature, humans spent much of their time in pursuit of food. This left little time to pursue other, more creative endeavors.
Between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, a shift began to emerge. Humans realized that certain seasonal crops could be reliably sown and harvested on schedule. This gave rise to more permanent settlements and the next logical step was to keep animals. Pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle were all known to be farmed in the “Fertile Crescent” that covers a bit of Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
With the evolution of agriculture, “trading” gave rise to a deeper social construct where humans relied upon each other to acquire and produce a variety of goods which, in turn, gave rise to crafters and service providers. In the past, if you didn’t hunt or gather, you didn’t survive. Now, you could focus on making fabric, weaving baskets, tending to the animals, and through a process of trading, one could get what they needed to live. The more successful of these permanent settlements would evolve into thriving cities with complex political and social structures to maintain order. We are still in that process in the modern-day, and that is precisely how I would like you to think about farming in 2021; continuing to evolve and serve the larger community.
With the global population set to top 8 billion in late 2022, a secure and sustainable food supply is more important than ever.
The Modern Farmer & Emerging Farming Trends in the US
Throughout the history of agriculture, the one thing you can be sure of is that innovation is born from need. Farmers, being in tune with their lands and always looking for a better way, are constantly refining and reimagining their processes.
New ideas and innovations in farming can be spread more easily now as more farmers connect digitally. Some emerging technologies are:
a) Drones are used for both imaging fields to spot problems from the air, mapping fields, and even for the application of fertilizer or treatments to the crop.
b) Localized weather data means in-field sensors can provide real-time temperature, rainfall and wind values. This can be tracked on data management software to inform spaying, irrigating and harvest as well as create a more accurate multi-year picture of the weather patterns and how they may or may not be changing.
c) Indoor, controlled environment farms are booming and technologies that allow for total environmental control managed from a smartphone will become the norm. This allows for the re-purposing of smaller spaces closer to urban centers and reducing transport costs.
d) Advanced soil mapping uses high technology to read soil composition and connect compatibility to certain agricultural crops or generate recommendations for supplementation.
These are examples of how progress in any field is quickly and proactively integrated into agricultural uses, making our food supply safer and more efficient. In many cases, a more precise approach helps to eliminate greenhouse gases, unnecessary costs and produce a superior product.
Health & Food Safety
More and more, the impact of our food on our overall health and the prevention of bugs, bacteria, and poisons in our food supply has taken center stage and consumer-driven demand changes the way farmers bring products to market. Large-scale food recalls are not good for anyone.
In 2021, food delivery services are growing exponentially, and the way we transport food will need to be looked at seriously. Experts predict that automated food prep and more accurate traceability will be two important themes in upcoming years. Farmers will need to be part of the traceability line.
The other major trends in food health and safety are labeling and product classification. More precise labeling with stricter “Best By” dates and more precise information are crucial for informed decisions. Additionally, specific food terms that have become marketing terms like “Organic,” “Natural,” “Healthy Choice,” “Gluten-Free” and “Low Calorie” will need to be defined and clarified in a way that consumers can understand their true meanings.
Lastly, hot button topics like GMO, artificial flavors, hormones and antibiotics, as well as plastics used in packaging, are all issues under review and as data emerges, the food industry will need to adjust. All of these considerations impact the farmer in terms of what they grow, how they grow and sell it. In many cases, it means more cost and more work on the farm.
The emerging technology of self-driving vehicles feeding all supply lines across the country with an automated transportation network will certainly recreate the way product comes to market. With the potential to lower costs, reduce delays, and have more precise real-time delivery schedules in play, autonomous vehicles are the wave of the very near future.
Saving cost on the human factor, reducing fuel usage through real-time traffic monitoring that allows AI-driven vehicles to re-route to the most efficient course, and a shorter timeline to get goods to market are all game-changers.
Most experts agree that this technology will also evolve into autonomous loading and unloading fleets, like self-driven forklifts that could unload a truck and place it in a warehouse according to a pre-determined plan. You may ask if this is a direct connection to farmers, but if the product gets to market faster and cheaper, agriculturalists may have some new wiggle room to innovate new products and up their ability to bring the fresh crop to market.
Attracting Good People
The National Farming Association says the average age of the American farmer is 60. For many years, there has been a push to get farming on the radar of young kids and try to create programs that attract and educate college graduates to seek the lifestyle associated with farming. In many ways, it is a hard sell, but the agricultural industry while growing is seeing a decline in humans.
This has created two fronts in the push to sustain our food supply. First, farmers are looking to technology to find a way to harvest, process, or in effect do all of the things humans have traditionally done.
Secondly, as mentioned previously, there is a push to introduce school gardens, increase nutritional awareness in the schools, and create programs that make farming “cool” and attract new minds into the fold. Farming will always need people and making it a viable career path is a challenge that will shape the future.
Political & International Concerns
The national food supply has become the international food supply as countries become increasingly intertwined and reliant upon each other for their agricultural needs. A drought in Mexico can affect the avocado supply across North America, which in turn gives rise to growers in Peru and Indonesia where different regulations are in place governing pesticides or requiring different tariffs on imports. If Peruvian avocado growers double production, that stresses the distribution network and can leave less space for Peruvian blueberry growers to get their product to market in a timely way.
In a nutshell, global distribution can be extremely complex and one industry’s trouble or success can create ripple effects that have ongoing repercussions for years.
This has simultaneously created a need for more localized farming, supplying the farmer’s market and local communities to create a stable local supply as well as a need for a more coordinated global infrastructure to keep large-scale agricultural commodities stable and well supplied. The international food supply chain will continue to be a major topic amongst world leaders for years to come.
Going back to my original thought, if you never think about where your food comes from, it seems like such a crazy and unbelievably large task to feed the world. If you work in the industry, you understand that farmers, ranchers, and food processors face an ever-changing landscape filled with constantly morphing challenges.
Now, back to work!
Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farm’s Tour and Retail Store Operations.