Saturday, June 9, 2012

Will Farming Become Automated Too?

In previous posts I've voiced a bit of suspicion about the idea, common in a lot of circles, that in the near term future, the great mass of unemployed will just "go back to the land" and live an agrarian existence. The data just don't bear it out.

We've written a lot about automation here. The article below summarizes the trend toward automation of the agricultural sector. given the mass unemployment around the world, it seems ridiculous to mechanize and automate agriculture even more, since it's already torn society apart. But the race to produce the most goods with the least amount of labor must continue unabated. The article mentions the possibilty that certain sectors will eschew this, even if it means higher prices. How will the trend play out?

I'll restate my belief that the crisis will come from mass unemployment and the resulting social deterioration before Peak Oil really starts to effect our lives. In addition, a small core of elites will continue to live lives of comfort and leisure, based on the social class they are born into, their access to good early education and insanely pricey and hard-to-get educational credentials, social connections, accidents of geography, and just plain luck. They will increasingly be a class apart, presiding over a society of desperate and radical neo-peasants who are brought to heel by police-state measures that would make Stalin blush (pee in a cup to get your welfare benefits, drones flying overhead, etc.)
Last July, Iowa-based Kinze Manufacturing gathered its dealers to debut a new on-farm toy: a John Deere tractor pulling a grain cart. The scene might have been unremarkable—dealers have seen the cart in action countless times—except that there was no one at the wheel.

The driverless tractor won admirers at NPR, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. But Midwesterners saw Kinze’s system as a welcome but predictable upgrade in the über-mechanized world of commodity growing. For more than a decade, farmers have enjoyed the advances of precision agriculture. The highest-tech farm vehicles across the country now boast real-time kinematic GPS and auto-steer technology. Farmers are just along for the ride, accompanied by  Beyoncé videos.

There’s no doubt that big bots are the future of big ag. The question is whether autonomous technologies will ever penetrate the rest of the market—smaller-scale, diversified, labor-intensive operations popping up across the country.

As of the USDA’s 2007 census of agriculture, the average American grower is 57 years old. For every farmer under 35, there are nearly six who are 65 or older. The agriculture industry is poised for sudden, widespread employee turnover from the last generation to the next. These incoming growers, far more than the outgoing ones, will decide the fate of robotic farming. And from what we know of new farmers, two very different futures are possible...
Automated farm equipment and small-scale farmers (Slate)


  1. It seems to me that your premise is that industrial agriculture will continue operating as it currently does, i.e. - huge conglomerates monocropping thousands upon thousands of square miles using high inputs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, using tons of petroleum-based packaging, and transporting the produce (or animals) to markets thousands of miles away using more petroleum-based transportation.

    The fact of that matter is that if we continue to rely on this system for our food, we surely will be enslaved. The key is to start growing your own food, join or start a community garden or CSA and get to know your local farmers. It's just one more (very important) step each of us should be taking to disconnect from a system that's dying.

    It's true that most young farmers lack the assets to buy land and start a farm. I own a few acres of tillable land, but being in my sixties, I no longer have the energy to put in all the necessary labor. So we have a partnership with several young folks, which essentially is bartering labor for land. Admittedly, I'm oversimplifying things, but you get the idea.

    Will this kind of small-scale farming feed a nation of over 300 million or a world of over 7 billion? Of course not. The only reason we've more or less been able to do that (and then only for a few decades) is because of oil. Period. With the decline of oil production in a world of exponentially increasing demand, something has got to give and I can promise you it won't be the laws of physics or the limits of the biosphere.

  2. I agree with you one-hundred percent. In the post I referenced, but was too lazy to link (which I have now), I mention that taking control over agriculture is about a lot more than dealing with high oil prices. It's about taking back our culture. But if you read that post, you'll see why I think the economics don't automatically bear out a return to the land as a viable option for most people. It's as much a personal choice as an economic one. As the current economic system fades away due to its internal contradictions as much as energy shortages, food production will become more important regardless of what makes 'economic' sense.

  3. Although it's not central to your post, I disagree a bit about the "insanely priced and hard-to-get credentials". In the higher-eductation world there's a lot of attention now to massive open online courses that are free. I think people will do the math. Buy a computer for $300, or pay tens of thousands for a residential university experience. I rather think respected online credentialling is coming sooner than we think.


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