Two articles came through my twitter feed Tuesday describing widely disparate views about the role that equipment and technology should or will play in the future of agriculture. The first was titled Farms of the Future will run on Robots and Drones. The second was Gaining Ground: Q&A with Forrest Pritchard. Pritchard is a successful “grass-finished” livestock farmer who suggests a minimalist approach to farm equipment needs. I’ll admit a strong bias for Forrest Pritchard’s approach, but acknowledge that high tech may play a major role, at least for certain types of farm production in Maryland.
When I was growing up, our 120 acre family farm was decidedly low-tech. My father and uncle (co-owners/operators of the farm) grew up during and following the Great Depression and were greatly adverse to farm debt. They would never give up on a piece of equipment and would make repairs themselves. The family joke was that each tractor was equipped with the three essential repair tools -a hammer, vise-grips, and a roll of wire. Neither my dad nor my uncle even owned a pickup truck. They were, in my view, successful farmers.
In his Q&A, reporter Tom Wolf noted that Forrest had sold most of his farm equipment, and he asked what are the essential pieces of equipment that a farmer can’t do without. Forrest said that new farmers should not “pigeon-hole themselves into thinking they need all this stuff”. He said that to the extent that they can, farmers should rely on farm animals to do what needs to be done or rent equipment when the really need it.
Taylor Dobbs paints the opposite picture in Farms of the Future will run on Robots and Drones. He leads off his article by interviewing a farmer who ironically is also named Forrest – Forrest Watson,who is surprised to see a misplaced corn stalk in a huge corn field. He works on his uncle’s farm, Mulligan Farm, which uses high-tech precision equipment and field data to increase crop yields and efficiency. Self guided tractors ply across hundreds of acres of land, and the owner hopes that soon “they’ll soon have access to small drones that can fly over the fields and monitor plant health from above”. One hundred years ago, this farm relied on farm animals to do the work. Now they are grateful that technology takes them away from the drudgery and improves productivity and efficiency.
We have seen this trend of increased technology with commodity crops, but the article goes on to say that engineers are modifying the equipment and technology approaches to serve small farm operations as well. For example, one entrepreneur envisions small robots swarming over the fields caring for crops.
Both farmers interviewed are part of successful farm operations, but each views technology differently. I have always viewed farming as both art and science. Robots and drones provide us much more capacity to use pre-defined scientific research to produce crops, but do we lose the art of farming if we don’t even get our boots dirty?
Most Maryland farms are small to mid-sized farms. Will the cost of robots and drones fit within their farm budgets? Will the debt associated from the technology purchases limit a farmer’s ability to diversify as needed to react to new economic conditions?