Gizmos and Grains

Self-driving vehicles aren’t just for the streets of Mountain View, California anymore. As Google races to bring fully autonomous cars to market by 2020, a driverless tractor may be rolling out into the fields around the same time. From drones to PrecisionAg, America’s amber waves of grain have never been so decked out in 21st century tech. Yet for the past half century, the story of technological innovation in agriculture has progressed lockstep with the consolidation of the industry, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of soil nutrients and natural resources. 

Our digital era was always going to rewrite the narrative of American agriculture, but a very particular set of political and economic circumstances has determined the direction that tech has driven the industry—namely, towards mega farms, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and commodity grains. Nevertheless, this inverse relationship between industry innovation and the prosperity of small and mid-size farms is not a foregone conclusion. Technology, entrepreneurial spirit, and the internet can all be harnessed to empower small, sustainable farmers. Whether through marketplace models or community-sourced hacks, we need to bridge the gap and reconsider our unchecked acquiescence to the notion that bigger is better. 

“Get Big or Get Out” 

This was a mantra of sorts for Secretary of the USDA Earl Butz, who served under Nixon and Ford. Ever an advocate for maximum-yield agriculture, Butz orchestrated a federal policy overhaul which incentivized farmers to produce as much as possible, at all times. Throughout the 1970s, farmers took out loans to buy more land, machinery, and chemicals in order to maximize their harvests, per the federal government’s urging. 

When the supersaturated markets collapsed in the 80s, prices plummeted, and tens of thousands of small farmers were then crippled by the debt they had taken on. Failing operations were subsumed by larger enterprises, and mega farms began to emerge. Farms that managed to stay afloat increased their production even further to recoup by volume what they were losing on price. 

While low prices devastated rural farming communities, the unprecedented surplus of cheap grain fueled the proliferation of CAFOs, also known as factory farms. Today, these CAFOs—which are notorious for their disregard for worker safety, animal welfare, and environmental impact—raise over 99 percent of the animals slaughtered for meat in the United States. 

The degradation of standards is in part a byproduct of economies of scale at play. According to a 2011 Pew report, annual poultry production has surged by 1,400 percent since the 1950s. By contrast the number of chicken producers has fallen by 98 percent. In short agricultural yield has continued to climb, while the number of farmers continues to drop. 

More Is Less

Improvements in mechanization and new technology have exacerbated this consolidation in many ways. Naturally, smarter machinery and new software makes it easier to farm more land or raise more chickens. But new technology is expensive: it becomes necessary to ramp up production in order to cover initial operational costs. Barriers to entry for beginning farmers are consequently much higher than they’ve ever been. 

New farmers are entering the field at lower rates than ever before, and the age of the average farmer is inching closer and closer to 60. Agricultural economist Otto Doering asserts that 40 years ago, a farmer could earn a good middle-class income with 800 to 1,000 acres. Today, a commodity farmer needs at least 2,000 to 3,000 acres to stay afloat—that is roughly equivalent to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,300 football fields. 

Americans may enjoy cheap food from the dollar menu, but the stunning consolidation of our agricultural industry has come at a high price. This burden is evident not only in the impoverishment of rural farming communities, but also in the deterioration of the soil, water quality, biodiversity, animal welfare, farm workers’ rights, and consumer health. For this reason mission-minded entrepreneurs, organizations, and farmers themselves have started to push back. All along the supply chain, folks are leveraging the equalizing power of the internet to create a more resilient, responsible farming economy. 

Like Farmer, Like Fowl

Just as a handful of Ag Giants have come to monopolize the poultry industry, a select few breeds of broiler chicken now dominate grocery store shelves (a striking parallel to the wheat, corn, and soy monocultures in our fields). In addition to the animal welfare violations endemic to the broiler industry, this is troubling for a host of reasons. For instance industrial chicken has been found to lack 50 percent of it ancestral genetic diversity, making these populations more susceptible to disease. And the very real consequences of this loss are evident in the recent outbreak of avian flu that is continuing to sweep the globe

Conversely 63 percent of the other domestic bird breeds are in fact at risk of extinction because there are fewer and fewer non-industrial farmers to raise them. Where Big Ag fails to address this growing concern, Denver-based entrepreneur Austin Johnson is doing his part to defend the gene pool and to support small hatcheries through eFowl (FoodFutureCo cohort 1), an online marketplace for heritage breed poultry. 

As Johnson explains in an interview with Heritage Radio Network, eFowl was born from a Thanksgiving conversation with his aunt who was raising waterfowl and needed a better way to reach her market. Eight years later, eFowl offers everything from inventory projections—which enable suppliers to list and sell future inventory—to minimum order stipulations and customer relationship management tools. 

This niche platform is optimized for small poultry producers and serves everyone from backyard farmers to small organic enterprises and family farms. Additionally Johnson brings an educational component to eFowl, covering all manner of fowl topics, including what to feed a pet duck and the versatility of Wyandotte Chickens. Johnson's site is more than a unique B2B platform that connects hatcheries to farmers: it is a vital educational, community-building tool in an underserved market. 

By using the eFowl platform, family farms are better able to reach their customers and capture more income for their farm and families.  Some farmers who have been working with eFowl since the beginning have been able to triple their revenues from their poultry operations—a win-win for both the farmer and fowl. And elsewhere in the supply chain, others are similarly using web-based technology to retool small farms for the modern economy. 

Crops on the Go

Food hubs have long played an important role in nurturing the farm-to-consumer link and providing transparency around locally-sourced foods. Now DC startup 4P Foods (FoodFutureCo cohort 1) brings the convenience of an online user interface as well as the flexibility to change, start and stop deliveries to the traditional food hub model. Founder Tom McDougall has organized this benefit corporation around triple-bottom line principles, seeking to serve a Purpose, the People, and the Planet, while creating Profit—four Ps, as it were. 

By offering home delivery and an array of pickup sites around the DC area, 4P encourages consumer engagement with the local foodshed and improves access to healthy, sustainable, farm-fresh food. For every ten bags sold, 4P donates a bag of food to a local food bank. In addition to this, the farmers themselves are prominently featured in 4P’s consumer outreach, continuously underscoring the love and labour that goes into each harvest. 

Back on the farm, inexpensive apps like goCrop can help farmers streamline resource management, so that they can optimize their time and better understand the environmental impact of their operation. Created by farmers at the University of Vermont Extension, goCrop is a powerful tool for managing data on farm inputs, soil characteristics, crop projections, and harvests. 

goCrop’s data storage and reporting capacities enable farmers to use their resources more efficiently, decrease nutrient runoff into our water supply, and meet the stewardship requirements of state regulations. The goCrop team proudly asserts that this tool was, “created by farmers for farmers,” and indeed this is one example of the collaborative spirit of the farming community coming to bear through digital media. 

Working Smarter

Nowhere is this collaborative spirit more evident, however, than on Founded in 2010, Farmhack is an online community platform where farmers that build, modify, or retrofit their own tools can share their inventions with one another to help foster sustainable, resilient agriculture. Small farms need tools that are “affordable, adaptable, and easy to fix.” (Such tools are not within the purview of the modern Ag Tech industry, which has its sights set on autonomous tractors and proprietary seeds.) 

The "Bed Weeder" at Roxbury Farm NY 

In response to an unanswered market need, Farmhack’s open-source tool library is a veritable Ag Pinterest of DIY solutions to small farm struggles. The ideas and products shared on the Farmhack are freely available to everyone and may be iterated upon by anyone. In their words, “[this] is horizontal exchange of information, principles, and mechanical ideas.”   

The extraordinary community that has rallied around Farmhack speaks to a significant gap in the market for the mechanical innovation that small-scale farming requires. While the Good Food community is handily advancing software tools and web-based platforms to support sustainable farms, facilitating mechanical innovation suitable for small farms is equally important. Entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers have a tremendous opportunity to partner with these farmers to identify pain points and develop solutions that then can be distributed to the wider community. 

New technology has transformed the structure and scale of agriculture over the past decades, but there’s no reason tech must be limited to advancing the goal of short-sighted volume gains at the expense of the land, the farming community, and the people it’s meant to help nourish. We’re calling all creative minds to look for both digital and mechanical breakthroughs to serve small farmers and sustainable, humane practices.