Friday, April 26, 2024

"Old Macdonald Had a Drone: Inside Farming’s Tech Boom"

One more post on agriculture. But this one is a few millennia past the neolithic and has drones and machine learning but somehow omits the laser weedkillers that can scorch 200,000 of the intrusive competitors per hour. There are also autonomous laser blasters that can take care of 100,000 per hour.

From Canada's The Walrus, April 22:

Farmers are struggling to compete against larger operations. Is automation the answer?

The MacLellans can pinpoint the moment their farm in Kensington, Prince Edward Island, underwent a significant change: spring 2009. That’s when the family tractors were outfitted with GPS. “You can take someone with less experience, throw them in the tractor, and the tractor drives itself,” says Bevin MacLellan.

At twenty-four, Bevin is the youngest son of the family and works on the property with his older brother, Rylan. Together, the men will eventually inherit the farm, the ninth generation of the MacLellans to do so. They farm potatoes, barley, and wheat on a three-year crop rotation and have a crew of about eleven employees outside of the family. The MacLellans can trace their farming history back to roughly 1790, when their forebears broke ground on sixty acres. Each generation has since brought something new to the operation, a different set of ideas to boost productivity, starting with the first MacLellan to hitch his plow to a horse. Bevin, who studied plant sciences in university, is the agronomics guy, looking at new fertilizer formulations and seed mixes; Rylan, with a diploma in agriculture business, deals with the machinery. Alongside their father and grandfather, they plan the planting, cultivating, and harvesting. But while farming is still a physical job, the men know they live in an era where more and more of it can be done on smartphones, using apps that run extensive irrigation networks or receive real-time analysis of soil health and nutrient levels.

Bevin and Rylan get excited about the possibilities of tech to make their farming smarter, more strategic, but given the costs, the brothers have to be selective. No shots in the dark; additions to the farm have to be proven. “There’s always someone coming in your driveway, trying to sell you something,” Rylan says. Everything comes back to efficiency. How many tasks can you squeeze out of a day? How much faster can you move? GPS in the tractors doesn’t just mean that a specialized crew member might be freed up to work more demanding jobs. It means that, by moving perfectly up and down the rows, the tractor shaves off precious seconds every time it traverses the field. The family can thus get more done with a single machine. As the farm grows, they rely increasingly on these kinds of hacks, wringing more out of each day than the previous one. 

At 1,800 acres, their farm has tripled in size from the time their grandfather, Kenny, seventy-four, took charge in the 1970s. He brought his son, Billy, on board in the early 1990s, and the operation has since expanded the way many farming families have—by buying up parcels of adjoining land after those neighbours aged out of the field. With costs being so high, one of the ways independent farmers can reliably make a profit is through sheer volume. “Unless you’re into something that’s a really specialized thing, and you found a market for it, you will not make a living off of that farm,” Kenny explains, Bevin nodding in agreement. “You can’t afford not to grow with the rest of them,” says Bevin. “They’ll out-compete you.”  

One day, the young men hope to sit in their grandfather’s and father’s chairs, watching future generations of MacLellan farmers. Their ultimate goal for the farm, and the family’s legacy, is to maintain their success. For that, they have to keep growing. “People think you’re still putting the same kind of seed in the ground,” says Rylan, “you’re still growing the same crop at the same time of the year with the same type of equipment.” But the moment you stop evolving with the industry is the moment you fall behind. They’ll have to bring on more tech to survive.

An image of farmers persists. Mom and Pop, likely white, smile in well-worn overalls and plaid shirts, big red barn behind them. Horses or cows are nearby. They get up with the sun, tend animals and the crops by hand. It’s romantic, unsophisticated, a haven for Luddites.

It’s also completely false. (Except the race part. Only 3.7 percent of Canadian farmers, according to the 2021 census, belong to a racialized group.) Farmers are among the earliest of early adopters, always ready to experiment in the name of efficiency. The first steam-powered combine harvesters arrived in North America in the 1880s, and the first tractors were widely introduced in the early 1900s. Wind energy may be used to power homes now, but American homesteads relied on windmills to mill grain and pump water from wells. Satellite imagery became available to farmers as early as 1972, long before Google Earth....