Can some industrial farming systems be beneficial for the environment?

| 11th July 2018
Industrial farming has resulted in serious concerns about welfare and safety. But technology is continually allowing for more automation and efficiency. One industry that could benefit greatly from new technology is agriculture, although it may be a difficult transition for farmers, writes EMILY FOLK

Agriculture jobs now demand that the work is done with an eye toward the future rather than remaining fixed on the present.

The development of farming as a pillar of human civilization has been fascinating, to say the least. Agriculture might not seem like an obvious place for industrial technology to take hold, since family-owned farms still represent a commanding majority of the United States farming community. But even the smallest and most community-focused farms have a lot to gain from industrial farming systems.

Adapting some of the most cutting-edge technologies might seem impractical — and some of them represent stumbling blocks and learning curves of their own.

But despite the growing pains, it’s clear that some aspects of industrial farming can help reduce the daily labour and planning burdens faced by any farmer, no matter the size of their operation, and even help us improve our stewardship of the planet while we’re at it.

Mapping Technologies

Farmers are always under a lot of pressure to deliver the quantities of food we need at the right price. But generations of poor soil management and a lack of concern for biodiversity and crop rotation have highlighted the need to engage in modern agriculture with a different mindset. Farmers need to operate with the needs of the natural world in mind as well as our own.

Modern geographical and geospatial mapping technologies have tons of possible applications for the modern farmer. With the help of some location-aware computer programs, even more traditional farmers have better tools than ever when it comes to appraising soil structure and nutrient levels as well as current and future weather conditions and moisture levels.

Intelligent computer analysis of your surroundings yields “prescriptive” map data of all kinds, including appropriate amounts of seed, pesticide and fertilizer levels, ideal planting times and suggestions for land optimisation, including which patches of earth should get used and which should be held over until the next planting season.

Aerial Monitoring

The demand for free-range practices and other ethics-minded farming techniques means you might have cattle and livestock covering a larger area than before.

Aerial drones have emerged as a welcome ally for farmers, giving them an aerial overview of where their herds are located and delivering some needed peace of mind.

And drones can help out with a myriad other tasks around the farm complex, too, including monitoring the progress of parasite infestations, as needed, as well as general crop yields — all without the need to physically walk what might be, in some cases, many football fields’ worth of land.

Anaerobic Digesters

One of the most vitally important sustainability hurdles to clear in agriculture involves the dispossession of animal waste.

As research has shown, methane emissions from herds of cattle have a massively deleterious effect on the planet.

A decade ago, manure represented about 37 percent of all human output of methane and about 64 percent of all human output of ammonia (which contributes to acid rain). This trend will only worsen if it continues unchecked.

The anaerobic digester is one emergent farming technology that’s not really cutting-edge at all. It involves converting food and animal waste into electrical energy.

It might just revolutionise how farms of all sizes meet their energy needs, dispose of environmentally harmful waste and bring down the carbon footprint of the entire agriculture industry.

In addition to producing electricity from the resulting biogas, extreme promise has also been demonstrated by smaller-scale anaerobic digesters for farmers in New York state in producing a nutrient-rich “effluent” for use on farmland that does the same job as manure, except without the environmental concerns. Expect little downside as this technology comes of age and permeates the industry.

Growing Pains

It’s true that all of the technology we’re rolling into the agriculture industry comes at a cost. For the most part, the technologies we’ve just been discussing reduce the workload of the average farmer, helping them do themselves, or with limited field hands, the work that used to require scores of employees.

If there’s a word of caution here, it concerns the proprietary nature of some of these technological innovations. There’s also the matter of price.

Some modern, computer-aided farming machines will set a US farmer back hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially, even as they slash the amount of labor and planning required for a successful harvest. It’s delivering efficiency and profitability that farmers likely wouldn’t have imagined just a couple decades ago.

But the cash required isn’t the only sort of buy-in required here. You’re also buying into a technology ecosystem, same as any other industry.

The computers powering your land use optimization software and your semi-autonomous tractors are proprietary technology — and when something goes wrong, you might not be able to tinker with it the way you could tractors of yesteryear.

At the same time, even when farmers find themselves somewhat dependent on dealers and manufacturers for field service and troubleshooting, these types of relationships can sometimes reduce, rather than add to, your stress levels.

It might mean leasing or renting equipment when you need it without buying outright. It also likely means some kind of included service or maintenance package.

It’s in your next-gen tractor supplier’s best interests as well as your own to keep this equipment running at peak efficiency — and that might mean regular, routine maintenance.

Including maintenance in the cost of a lease is a practical proposal, since conducting repairs after a piece of equipment has already failed might cost you 2.5 times more than preemptive maintenance would.

Community Endeavor

There’s another possibility here — one that comes in equal parts from the potential of high-tech farming equipment and from the possible difficulty of bringing that technology into the fold.

Over the next couple of decades, it’s likely that local and regional farms will engage more frequently in resource pooling, co-investment and equipment sharing than they ever have before.

It’s about sharing the burden of buy-in, but it’s also about reducing some of the duplication of effort among separate agricultural enterprises — duplication that results in waste and unnecessary expense.

Farmers are already amazing at what they do. But it’s not just about producing as much food as possible. Agriculture jobs now demand that the work is done with an eye toward the future rather than remaining fixed on the present.

With the insights that new technologies bring us, farmers be able to feed the world more effectively and keep our planet healthy at the same time.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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