Farms Finest: How technology on the farms has changed the food we eat
March 30, 2014
What is the fastest-growing product found on America's farmland? It is the latest crop of technology, especially the variety held in the palm of a farmer's hand. Communication can be delivered instantly and sent to the most remote cornfield. Today's smartphones can monitor literally thousands of acres and provide feedback with the touch of a button.
It was only a few generations ago when a good dog and a scarecrow guarded the then-numerous small gardens. Farmers stayed in the loop with visits from the agriculture extension agent or by stopping at the local co-op for information on crop viruses, new weeds or weather. Hometown lunch counters were once filled with dusty-coverall-wearing customers, swapping stories on crop rotations, watering methods and counts on newborn calves. It was the way farmers connected then, and it was a big part of small-town life.
Today, Twitter and Facebook provide up-to-the-second information on iPads inside tractors and smartphones. Farming now often will involve managing horizon-reaching expanses of crops. Satellite technology is the new guardian, and social media are the messengers. Agriculture has left the farms' kitchen tables and has joined a global food table.
In exchange, we have distant laboratories creating patented seeds, crops monitored remotely by satellites and microchipped machines working crop rows. With blinding speed, computers can spit out production reports with accuracies previously unknown. Farmers can Skype meetings directly from the air-conditioned comfort of tractor cabs, while GPS provides steering with "inside the inch" precision across the vast fields.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has downloads such as Soil Web, which combines soil surveys with pinpoint GPS location. John Deere has an application called Mobile Farm Manager providing data-defining soil grids from one field to the next. The Data Transmission Network streams price reports on commodities, livestock and equipment auctions.
Digital-equipment upgrades to tractors can cost around $28,000, and the increased efficiency has proven to be well worth the price. Reportedly, the number of bushels per acre being extracted from the soil has nearly doubled since technology became a part of the farm day.
All the while, Monsanto continues to create lines of super seeds resistant to insects, disease and drought. You might say we have created a nearly foolproof way to mass-produce food and have found the way to wring out the maximum production from our dwindling farmlands.
This new technology also has cultivated a universe of digitally connected farmers. What were once local food communities have grown into a global group focused on producing for an ever-increasing demand for food. You might guess correctly that the leaders in these digital conversations are the industrial food giants and big agriculture.
An important point to remember is that we have increased the volume, not the quality, of foods with new technology. Industrial food factories create magical transformations using flavorings, vitamin enhancements and coloring and finally mold them into a food product for the consumer.
Food production is a big topic, whether it is the newest high-tech food application for commercial production or as low-tech as making use of retired landfills for community gardens. No matter how we perfect the efficiency, or the latest creative innovation, all attempts will have to contend with the laws of Mother Nature. These were respected by past generations of farmers and provided a balanced existence for their families, communities and environment.
Producing unmolested and nutritious food is attainable again. We simply must maintain healthy soil; provide light, fresh air and adequate water; and work within an appropriate environment that will sustain growth. No magic pill nor synthetic fertilizer will fix exhausted or toxic soil. No book will make tomatoes grow on wind-blasted slopes or induce flowers to bloom lavishly in the darkness of low light.
Nature is the original matchmaker and still requires the right plants for the right location. Greenhouses can extend growing seasons, automated fertilizer and irrigation units will reduce labor costs, and other innovations can be dazzling, but to realistically feed a community or larger area, it will require finding that healthy balance again among profit, product quality and quantity. It has been said and is worth saying again: You will reap what you sow.
On April 6, I will share the wonderful Smithsonian exhibit I visited while in Washington called "Food, Transforming the American Table" from 1950 to 2000.
Joni Keefe currently works for a commercial airline while continuing to write about agriculture and food. Follow Farms Finest on Twitter, on Facebook and in The Aspen Times on Sundays.