Can family farmers use technology to survive? Quentin Hardy thinks so—in a Sunday article for the New York Times, he writes of generational farmers who are increasingly relying on data and drones to succeed:
The demise of the small family farm has been a long time coming. But for farmers like Mr. Tom, technology offers a lifeline, a way to navigate the boom-and-bust cycles of making a living from the land. It is also helping them grow to compete with giant agribusinesses.
The idea of farmers using technology to “catch up” with Big Ag isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but there may be unintended consequences.
First, it’s important to note that this type of farming encourages farmers to consolidate their farms to one specific crop, thus fighting against the principles of diversity that help keep farmland healthy. As Hardy puts it,
There is an incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale. Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems. Smaller farmers without technology could also grow one crop, but they would not capture most of the gains.
Technology encourages farmers to move too aggressively toward easy-to-grow and easy-to-sell crops that are more easily measured by instruments, rather than keeping some diversity in the fields — an age-old hedge against bad weather and pests…
Farmers can’t afford to buy the amount of equipment that would be necessary to keep up with a diverse farm via technology. Yet if they don’t diversify, it can have a deleterious effect on their soil—not to mention the effect it can have on their livelihood, if that crop fails.
Also, note that this sort of specification requires farmers to a) have a more diverse set of skills, and b) to rely on a greater variety of outside support. “It used to be, if you could turn a wrench you’d be good at farming,” Mr. Burbrink told the Times. “Now you need to know screen navigation, and pinpointing what data should go where so people can plan and predict. You need to be in tune with other people: seed consultants, agronomists, the equipment folks.”
In his book Gaining Ground, seventh-generation family farmer Forrest Pritchard wrote of the long-term costs that can result from relying on technology. Selling equipment and using simpler processes actually saved Pritchard money—he didn’t have to invest as much in the upkeep and maintenance of various piece of equipment. So even if equipment helps a farm grow bigger, it will also make the upkeep a lot more complicated.
Finally, using technology to expand a farm could have long-term consequences, because it can stretch a farm past its natural limits. There is a reason small farms are growing more popular: the more human-scale the enterprise, the higher quality the product. Farms that try to do too much, or grow too big, often badly impact the quality of both their crops and their personal lives. It’s important to consider whether bigger is always better. Perhaps family farmers shouldn’t be trying so hard to compete with the “big guys”—there is a burgeoning market for smaller, sustainably-farmed enterprises. And by tapping into that market, farmers can keep things to a smaller, more healthy scale, without seeing their sales completely fall apart. Of course each area of the United States is unique and different, but it is true that this sort of local production is growing in demand.
Why does all this matter so much? Agriculture in America is changing, restructuring itself to survive in the midst of new technology, aging agrarians, and a changing consumer base. The way that farms modify their methodology will directly impact the future of the agricultural enterprise as a whole. We may have a resurrection of the small, sustainably-produced family farm. Or we may have large, drone-run commodity farms. Perhaps both can live in harmony together—that remains to be seen. But it is important that the former are not completely destroyed by the latter.