Monday, June 4, 2012

The (Green) Revolution Will Not Be Robotic

Or maybe it will. America's young farmers will decide.


Check out my new piece on Slate on the unraveling future of on-farm robotics...

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. READ MORE...

Photo by Wheat initiative / flickr.com