What Will the Farms of the Future Look Like?
June 14, 2019 6:40 AM   Subscribe

Every person on earth needs food every day. Every day, food is tended, harvested, transported, stored, and served up on our tables. In a very real sense, food cannot be separated from life itself. And so it has been said that changing the way we grow and eat food is one of the most powerful tools we have for changing our economies and society as a whole. So when we ask: what will the farms of the future look like? We should really be asking — what do we want the future to look like? And then answers may begin to emerge.

Isabel Marlens writes about how small farms can heal our broken society.

Also, small farms produce more food than statistics show.
posted by ragtag (22 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
— there are still a lot of barriers in the way of getting started.

The cost of land is the biggest.

The stories are great and wealthy foodies getting back to nature makes for a great story but have had family that tried, had some land, and it's not just really hard work, there are limited short term markets and the forces of nature do not always cooperate. Historically small family farms do literally do not survive (as in perish from starvation) when there is not a lifeline or industrial processes to get by the hard times.

I'd still bet on the robot revolution, happy ducks in rice paddies have limited effectiveness, consider a swarm of tiny insect sized insect killer robots that monitor, plant seeds with precision and topically weed out the not useful plants.
posted by sammyo at 7:19 AM on June 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

What Will the Farms of the Future Look Like?

Gigantic covered Algae pools behind the processing plant. And/or rack upon rack of hydroponically grown vegetables, tended by robots. If we are lucky.
posted by Chrischris at 7:30 AM on June 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Future is now.
posted by sammyo at 7:36 AM on June 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Still a big fan of the solar-powered skyscraper farm concept, because it:

a. avoids all the vagaries of climate change (rain, drought, heat)
b. Is likewise bug- and disease-protected
c. Doesn't poison the land and water with fertilizers (and recycles water)
d. Puts food growing inside cities, solving several problems of access and carbon use at once swoop.
e. Will create useful models for food growing in space stations or even Mars colonies if we ever get to that.

How nice would it be to live in a city, walk two blocks, and buy fresh strawberries that were grown right there and picked that day? How many jobs would that create? How much more resilient would our food supply be if it weren't completely dependent on long chains of trucking/shipping?

There are a lot of problems to be solved, but given what the climate is doing, and how unsustainable most of our farming practices are, I think we do have to find a way to move at least some of our farming indoors.
posted by emjaybee at 8:22 AM on June 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

A huge part of future farming has to be soil restoration cause we use ...a lot of fertilizer

How much? So much that we can’t even count how much methane pollution the industry makes

Reckless farming practices drive climate change. But regenerative practices, over time, show higher twills, more stable growing seasons, and large amounts of carbon sequestering.

We could turn the great plains into carbon eating machines though rewilding and restorative soil practices in addition to the knock-on effects prairie restoration would have - could be part of restoring some land to Native American control.
posted by The Whelk at 8:42 AM on June 14, 2019 [12 favorites]

A huge part of future farming has to be soil restoration cause we use ...a lot of fertilizer

There are companies that now make microbes to supply nitrogen naturally. No fertilizer required. So that's win-win.

Also this is one of the worst years for farming so far, like 1980s farm crisis bad, so I dunno if I have it in me to talk much about future farms when we're planning mental health campaigns targeted to farmers at the moment.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't know that small farms alone will fix all of food supply issues, environment, climate change, AND culture—for one, what is a small farm? In the phys.org article, they looked at farms under 5 hectares. Obviously, a small farm in Zimbabwe is not the same as a small farm in France is not the same as a small farm in the US, in terms of size, output, and systems around it.

But we have to do more practical work (if you're in a position working somewhere in the food system) or work on future narratives (if you don't work on food but consume and talk about food) that make some kind of land-based, non-monocropped, non-monopolistic farming a centerpiece of a food system going forwards. Why narratives? Isn't that kind of...soft and not very technical and not futuristic?

I'm really not trying to go after anyone personally, because I also used to think that, 'of course robot vertical farms are the future of food, what are you some kind of luddite if you don't?'

Because having worked at the bleeding edge of vertical farming (well-funded, well-publicized), I can tell you that EVERY positive fastcompany or wired or Inc piece about it, every design school student's speculative thesis, even the warm happy-futurist narratives you yourself feel are inevitably the future, are based on narrative, marketing, and wishes, not on any kind of data or reality that currently exists.

The thing about a lot of traditional, multi species mixed-culture systems is that through iteration, people find ways to get the system to balance and maintain itself without having to understand every single function of every species or part in every context. So happy ducks in rice paddies, may ( I don't know, do they? where are you getting that they are limited?) have limited effectiveness along one metric, but getting a swarm of tiny robots to do ALL PARTS of their job effectively would require understanding every single function they serve in every iteration of a system, somehow monitoring that using a limited array of sensors (and, let's be real, people marketing this like to pretend that they can, basically, magically sense anything, everything important about the state of a plant, but 1) they can't do that now even with lots of different expensive sensors and 2) to make a working flying insect-size robot that doesn't cost $50 each, you're going to be limited to ~1 visual sensor) , and THEN making an intervention that was exactly right and not missing any of the other functions of the organism you're replacing.

OK, let's say you don't go the swarm robots route, but you do invest in vertical farming inside cities.

Let's set aside for the moment that the ~$500K it takes to outfit ONE 40-foot shipping container with LED lights of the right power and spectrum, the right pumps and and dosers and nutrient sensors and power consumption meters and CO2 generators makes this kind of setup immediately only accessible to outfits with venture capital backing (and, really, you trust them behave responsibly? They already completely fucked us with online privacy and the integrant of elections and you want to just hand them our food supply too?).

You may have heard things about vertical farming like "it uses 10X less water!!" and "LED lights give the plants exactly the spectrum they need!!", but the REAL cost that no one likes to talk about in vertical farming is HVAC. Here's MeFi fave Sarah Taber with some insights on the cost of Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning in the context of vertical farming operations. She points out that LED lights are more efficient to run and give off less heat than other alternatives, which is true. But in my experience even if you're using LEDs, cooling the air (rather than powering the lights themselves) is still the #1 source of power consumption. I don't have any data on if its 40% or 90%, but even with the most efficient lights possible, you're going to spend a TON of money on the power it takes to cool and dehumidify the air.

And, the stories you've heard about vertical farming just magically taking away the problems of conventional large farms aren't really real, either. A temperature rise of outside air due to climate change just makes cooling that much more expensive. Indoor farms get outbreaks of insect pests, molds, and bacteria all the time; and in farms outside the industrial-monocropped norm, intercropping and field rotations are actually really effective at resisting pests and diseases. If you've figured how to produce, store, and deliver enough clean energy to your vertical farm (on EXTREMELY expensive per square foot urban real estate) to run the lights and cooling, etc, you have all the clean energy you need to produce food on less expensive land within driving distance of a city and truck it in on an electric truck. Having spent some time around the plant science research going on at NASA in Kennedy Space Center, the big issue they're dealing with for space-based food production is that in microgravity, the surface tension of water becomes a huge issue—basically, it doesn't flow and get to plants the same way it does in earth gravity.

For some more depth on this kind of analysis, I can't recommend James Scott's Seeing Like a State enough. He talks about different methods that states have used in history (although it's equally applicable in the 21st century to companies) to try to control complex natural and social systems through a kind of top-down simplification that seeks to make them legible to certain objective measurements, and toss out any unmeasurable or difficult-to-measure functions as unimportant. One example is the rise of Scientific Forestry in 18th- century Germany; enterprising early modern foresters studied the space and input needs and growth rate and output in board feet of certain types of trees, and cleared or planted to create monocrop forests dedicated to maximum wood output. By ignoring other functions of the trees and other forest species (underbrush as water, pest, and soil health control and providing housing and cover to animal species, marginal or short species providing thatch, fodder, or fruit, etc), they created a perfectly mapped, legible, maximally outputting factory for wood. Which began dying shortly after the second generation of trees was planted, because by ignoring and erasing all of the myriad, complex, not immediately obvious functions going on in the forest, they created invisible 'holes' in this network that made it completely unsustainable in the long term. It's almost like the entire value system of unlimited growth via perfect technocratic control needs to be retooled, instead of just giving it new ground to exploit. Vertical farming, as it currently exists, is the 18th-century scientific forestry of 2019.

When I tell people stuff like this, there is often a response that those are engineering issues that will be figured out. But If you're willing to make the cognitive leap of faith that "well, engineers are smart people, I'm sure they'll just figure all this stuff out" based on the current state of reality, you are also fully able to embrace the possibility of another narrative that involves actually working with the land in a smart, science-enabled, socially conscious way. I don't know what that is yet, I don't think anyone really does, but you're doing yourselves a disservice in not critically examining what power dynamics and what trajectories are hidden behind speculative mythmaking on the supposed positive inevitability of corporate vertical farming for everyone. (and it's going to be corporate, because that's the only people who can afford the start-up costs)
posted by zingiberene at 9:44 AM on June 14, 2019 [35 favorites]

Thread of vertical farming techniques that can be achieved without new technologies or advancements

The big thing I like about restorative soil practices and related fields is that they don’t require new advancements in engineering or technology.
posted by The Whelk at 10:01 AM on June 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's another reason we need a global green new deal. Industrial farming has ruined the land in large parts of the world, and one reason those farmers can't change to sustainable practices is that their land needs regeneration before you can start over. Who pays the bills in the meantime?
Another thing that would be good and transcends the individual farmers means is large scale planning, that could create corridors for life between the big fields. I wish I could draw this, because it's hard to explain but easy to show. The idea is that you set up a grid of wilderness all across the farmland, regardless of ownership. That way both flora and fauna of all scales can spread across the region. The wilderness can be tended, to avoid invasive species, and even to harvest food and game -- you can have an orchard within the wilderness grid, and meadows, or a forest garden, even private dwellings if people can accept they are living in the grid and can't use pesticides or artificial fertilizer. The grid ideally follows and supports the natural waterways, thus also protecting clean drinking water. I think maybe this will be part of the new green policy in the EU, and that farmers will be compensated for their work. In this model you don't transition to all sustainable in one movement, so bulk grain can still happen, and thus some level of industrial produce. But it needs political initiative and tax-money.

What is really different from back when people had to give up living from the land on a farm like the one I am on right now, is communication and computerization. I'm not farming full-time, but I'm finding ressources that weren't accessible to my grandparents. They only had the advice of big-farm funded consultants, and that advice was bad. Since I took over the farm 6 years ago, I can see my neighbors doing better and better. Both because of better knowledge, but also because of better communication. They don't have to sell their produce to the big companies anymore, and that means they can get a far bigger share of the consumer price. Like going from 1/10 to 1/2 or more. So they may produce less than at the height of industrial production, but they earn more. Here at the lazy farm, I can see our former desert becoming rich and green (this is literal, most of the land was dunes of sand when my grandparents took over). I already have more fruit than I need, next thing up is vegs.
Still, education would be a huge thing, globally, in a global green new deal. Farmers need to work sustainably in all parts of the world, in different and changing climates. Google can't handle that alone.
Also, since the fifties, the costs of some of the things you need to get by have fallen drastically. Everyone can have a computer. Everyone can have a tractor if it isn't completely new. Until recently, setting up your own commercial butcher shop or dairy or brewery would be for huge farms only because the coolers, centrifuges and vats were too expensive, now it's happening all over on a micro scale.

It can happen if we want it.
posted by mumimor at 10:07 AM on June 14, 2019 [10 favorites]

The Whelk, thanks for the thread, that's a new twitter follow for me.

Another great urban vertical/aquaponics venture is Oko Farms, the kind of food futurism that doesn't make me want to lie down until the abyss takes me.
posted by zingiberene at 10:07 AM on June 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

So from following Dr. Taber's tweets its become obvious that to get anywhere with agricultural reform, we need to first divest ourselves of the romanticism regarding farming. Particularly the myth of the "family farm".

For instance, the few farms that Dr. Taber approves of? The ones that actually obey environmental and labor laws? That actually make good profits and are more productive than the national average? Those are California corporate farms. Because they actually treat farming as a business, and not some racist land scam.

From what I've read of Dr. Taber's work, "Family Farming" is usually part of the problem, not the solution. She almost off handedly tells stories about imbedded racism and generational abuse by people who have no idea of how to treat the people around them, how to handle finances, and then loudly whine for subsides when they run into problems.
posted by happyroach at 10:33 AM on June 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

There're a few companies investigating using soldier fly larvae to produce animal feed (it's been approved for farmed salmonid, chicken, and pets [dogs/ cat] in Canada so far, currently under examination in the US and EU).

One of the most advanced is in Langley, BC [thetyee.ca] and they're opening up a second phase incorporating lessons learned near Calgary.

Uses pre-consumer (wasted, unsalable) food (and flies) as feedstock, and the footprint is miniscule. Surprisingly, to me, no offensive smells are associated with production.
posted by porpoise at 3:50 PM on June 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Recently I met a vertical farm pioneer, they were a physicist not a horticulturist and what came through most strongly was the myth they'd developed of viewing a living system as a mechanical system, there was no appreciation of the complexity of providing all the things you can get for 'free' in the open air. Also vert farms cannot accumulate carbon.

A back of an envelope calc tells me multi-storey farming is probably @ least 500 the cost of field farming, running costs are probably similarly scaled.

I have looked at growing on flat rooftops, altho you need 300m² (to make $ sense), a hard roof, a semi-sheltered position - but not shaded, a lift and most of all willingness from building owners, banks, council and insurance companies.

As we move into a low-carbon future the idea of spending thousands a dollars a square metre to build an energy-intense vertical farm just doesn't stack up.

Vertical farming is just so capital-intensive - recycling former multistory buildings won't always work so you have to build anew. I feel that much of the appetite for vertical farming comes out of very high profile so-called living walls, altho' these are a travesty compared to the prototypes that emerged in Berlin 40 years ago*. The Berlin systems actually solved urban water issues and grew plants in a semi-self sustaining system. By contrast living walls are very dependent on care and usually decoupled from the building.

* search for 'Block 103 Kreuzberg Berlin S.T.E.R.N Collective' hard to find online
posted by unearthed at 4:14 PM on June 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Can we go back to smaller, family owned farms? Or community gardens that all the neighbors tend to? It would bring a sense of community and reward for being a part of something healthy and local. More farmers markets and roadside stands on the honor system. I’m an idealist, I know, but what if...? Locally grown veggies and fruits , small farm raised chickens for eggs... Or turn some community parks that have extra space into garden space? There’s a great sense of pride to be felt when growing veggies, get kids involved, get people off the internet and doing something reasonable and attainable to solve a problem that affects us all each day.
posted by ascrabblecat at 5:39 PM on June 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can we go back to smaller, family owned farms?
Often "family" farms are heavily in debt either to banks or to big ag, and they can't find the means to get out of it. Also, depending on where you are, distribution can be very difficult for small farms. I'm in a touristy area, and that is a huge driver of income for my succesfull neighbors. Then they use social media to keep things going outside the season.
In huge empty farm areas in the Mid-West US or Central Europe, that's probably not as much of an option, and that's why you need both regulation and incentives to change stuff.
On the other hand, when the landscape has been made more sustainable, tourists may come. There was a river in Southern Denmark that had been strongly regulated and straightened out for industrial farming purposes. Then it was brought back to its natural state with a lot of bends and surrounding meadows that are flooded in spring. And now it brings tourists to the area most of the year.
I think urban gardens serve an important purpose in making people aware of where food comes from. Our local school garden even has farm animals, and it has a dual purpose: teaching the kids about food and giving old people with dementia a place to remember stuff from their childhood.
posted by mumimor at 2:36 AM on June 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are two places where vertical farming makes sense to me:

* On Mars (or the Moon, or insert-space-colony-here)

* In locations where the external environment is inimical to traditional agriculture.

The former is a minority pursuit (for now) although I can see it appealing to the VCs who want to pocket some of Musk's lucre; but the latter is going to be an increasingly severe problem.

Above about 35-40 celsius the C3 photosynthetic pathway shuts down; above 45 celsius (wet bulb) we run into heat emergencies that are non-survivable by animals without climate control. Over the next fifty years large chunks of Africa, South-East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, and the Americas (both north and south continents) are going to experience these temperatures on a regular (annual) basis, and these are unfortunately the areas with best insolation levels and current or potential best agricultural output.

We can't abandon them as farmland, but at a minimum it's going to take new practices that shelter humans and animals (including insect pollinators and earthworms, I'm not talking beef herds here) from excessive heat, and probably research on GM crops that are selected not so much for high yield (be it of protein or profits for Monsanto) as for high temperature viability. And moving stuff indoors, piling it high in racks with LED grow-lights, at least makes it easier to reduce peripheral heat flux once you accept that farming without HVAC is no longer possible.

(As for power, I'm calling it for a renaissance in fission reactors around 2050, when things are really bad ...)
posted by cstross at 7:27 AM on June 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm just putting this in here
posted by mumimor at 7:52 AM on June 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

i actually live on a small farm in maine and have worked on many in the northeast(mass,vt,ny,nh). also happen to be a robotics phd dropout though i still work part time for a robot startup.
not that that means you should believe me but i do think small diversified farms are amazing(and very long time tested heirloom technology!) and robots are stupid(even though i still get paid nice $$ to work on them ;).

from a societal "growth" point of view, soil health seems to be one of the few real indicators of local wealth. it literally translates into more food to eat and more plant matter to build shelter with. captures carbon, etc. the northeast usa has amazing small farm food scene, but it has a cost barrier to entry.
some better national healthcare and some real estate land reform(no tax breaks on 2nd homes!!) and i think the price of small scale organic local food would drop considerably.

further reading
https://naturalsociety.com/russians-prove-small-scale-organic-can-feed-world/ about small farms in russia.
book on asia which discusses how land reform put a lot more small plots on land into hands of small farmers and that contributed to long term slow growth.
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/66354.Flow - this book talks about rewarding human experience, lots of people in small villages in europe working in diversified homestead type scenarios reported hi life satisfaction
and also "farmers of forty centuries" which has a lot about practices of small farmers in asia. written in the early 1900's.

on a side note i do think vertical farms are total nonsense! for these 2 reasons mainly: sunlight projects to a flat plane(how can artificial light be more efficient than direct sunlight???!!), soil is a living thing that really affects taste and plant health/productivity.
posted by danjo at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

My grandparents raised my dad and his brothers and sisters on their 700+ acre farm and sustained their family by raising cattle and chickens, and leasing their land to local farmers for certain crops after they were not able to tend to the tasks themselves and when their adult children had no interest. My grandparents are gone now but their land is still there, now subdivided between the family members.

In their heyday, distribution and transportation was not a concern because the locals came to their farm to pick up veggies or eggs. They also baled and sold hay. Maybe that was a different time and place... I think keeping the food source on a smaller, more personal scale is more effective than trying to meet the needs and serving a wider public.

My grandparents, when gardening, would rotate which fields their crops grew in from year to year to help the soil... not sure what fertilizer they used, if any. My grandpa came from the Depression Era and was quite prudent when managing his farm...no debt..nothing extravagant... waste not want not... pay cash for what is bought. Fresh veggies. Ripe fruits. Eggs. Local.
Reminiscing, I suppose.
posted by ascrabblecat at 1:52 PM on June 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

(For those who are confused like I was, the word The Whelk meant to use was 'reliance', not 'replicants'. It's a good article with a strong biological basis and is not about alien invasion or weird conspiracy theories about pesticides.)
posted by hydropsyche at 6:06 AM on June 22, 2019

Three years ago I heard a successful organic dairy farmer state that since he'd gone organic his vet bill had reduced from an average of NZ$65. per animal per year to less than $7.

Also that his weed control bill had reduced almost to nothing - mind you that takes exceptional farmer skill and a long learning curve, but as organics and so-called regenerative agriculture gets taught more and more these learning curves are shortening.
posted by unearthed at 12:09 AM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

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