Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Robofarm

Forget about farm jobs saving us from automation:
The property Kevin Liefer and his son, Kirk, cultivate in southern Illinois has been expanding for decades without adding a single manager. These are boom times for farming and a bust for farm jobs. The 3,600 acres of mostly corn, wheat and soybeans the Liefers hold were about 30 separate, individually operated farms more than 40 years ago, said Kevin. As families left, the homesteads near Red Bud, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southeast of St. Louis, melded into one operation. Older tractors were replaced with models that cultivate more ground and serve as miniature offices, complete with global positioning systems that allow them to steer themselves. Mobile phones enable communication while in the fields.

“There’s so much more you can do now without as much labor,” said Kevin, 58. “The consolidation has been rapid.”

A U.S. farm boom showing few signs of a let-up isn’t translating into more opportunities in one of the most robust areas of the economy. Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers will see the steepest decline of any employment category by 2020, losing a projected 96,000 jobs this decade out of 1.2 million positions, part of a broader trend toward less labor in the sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The drop comes even as agricultural managers have the highest median wage of any of the top 20 declining categories, at more than $60,000 a year. Farm owners like the Liefers are able to manage larger tracts of land without hiring overseers. Full-time farm managers hired by others can handle more property for more clients, said Jerry Warner, a past president of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, a farm- management organization based in Denver.

Many of the fastest-declining U.S. job categories result from industry contraction: post offices closing because of lower mail volume and textiles factories because of outsourcing, for example. Agriculture is an expanding sector with rising profits, even as overall employment, including laborers, is projected to drop 2.3 percent over this decade.

Total planted acreage has risen in seven of the past 10 years, the prices of corn and soybeans reached records last year, and profits for 2012 of $114 billion are estimated to be second only to 2011, even after the worst drought since the 1930s. Farmer debt is near its lowest in at least 60 years of record-keeping while land prices are at an all-time high. Still, all 291,000 of the farm-manager positions expected to become available in the decade up to 2020 -- net of those lost -- will be replacement jobs, according to the Labor Department.

Consolidation tells only part of the story. The number of U.S. farms, which fell by half in the three decades up to 1986, dropped by just 3.1 percent in the past quarter-century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About one- quarter have sales of less than $100,000 annually and don’t need a full-time manager, while larger farms are more easily overseen by one person, said David Anderson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Record Profits No Job Creator on Farms as Owners Automate (Bloomberg)

Maybe we should grow some vegetable besides corn and soybeans:
Gardener Mike Alt has come up with the idea, and thinks that making gardens and urban farms more techy is a great way to help new farmers find more success and streamline the efforts of more experienced farmers. In the process, the urban gardening movement -- from postage stamp-sized backyard gardens to urban farms housed in vacant lots -- can get a leg up from the rapidly advancing Internet of Things.

From the Kickstarter campaign:

We've built a sophisticated, yet easy to use device that will help remove the guesswork for new farmers and provide automation and optimization features for those more experienced. The device is deployed in your farm or garden to monitor the key environmental conditions for improving your yield. This information is relayed back to HarvestGeek where you are provided detailed analysis. This device has affectionately taken the name HarvestBot around the shop...
HarvestGeek Automates Your Entire Garden (Treehugger)

1 comment:

  1. Hm... something does not feel right in this picture... as gasoline prices go up, so will the costs associated with these robotractors, and the rest of the oil these farms gobble up.

    More and more calories are needed to grow one calorie of food. How long can you push the curve before it starts its downward slope?

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