Big Bots in Little Agriculture

Will small-scale farmers use drones and other automated equipment?

Kinze Manufacturing unveils first autonomous row-crop technology
Kinze Manufacturing unveils first autonomous row-crop technology

Photograph by PRNewsFoto/Kinze Manufacturing.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.

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.

The first future is that of the hip, “back-to-the-earth” young farmer glamorized by media reports. These new producers are in agriculture not because their fathers implored them to take the reins of the family business, but because they genuinely enjoy food and the task of making it, including the dirty work. Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, says young people want to “produce something with their hands, form new kinds of relationships with customers, and have a meaningful experience in nature every day. My son is a dairy farmer, and he actually likes to touch his cows.” Young farmers may not be excited about the weeding, exactly, but they’d prefer it to toiling full-time in a fluorescent-lit cubicle.

Even if they want to try a few autonomous technologies, these new farmers can’t afford them. Young growers are best understood as startup CEOs with serious cash flow problems. A survey by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition found that lack of access to capital, credit, and land are the top obstacles for aspiring operators. Farm values have doubled since 2000—great for those with established properties, but not for those trying to break into the industry. Young farmers find themselves denied for commercial loans and ineligible for government funding. It seems unlikely they’ll use their precious seed money to spring for a robot.

They won’t benefit as much from high-tech help, either. On average, farms operated by people 35 and older are nearly 40 percent larger than farms operated by people under 35. These smaller plots require fewer man-hours (indeed, young farmers spend 40 percent less on contract labor), so adding a robotic worker might not result in much payroll savings. Young farmers also fork out less for chemicals and fertilizer each year. Machines that promise more efficient application won’t save them that much money.  And though data on crop diversity by farm is hard to come by, smaller, organic operations that sell directly to customers tend to grow lots of different fruits and vegetables, each with its own production challenge. A one-bot-fits-all solution is exciting but unlikely.

We must also admit that, cute as they are, most ag bots designed for small-scale operations simply don’t work that well yet, as demonstrated by YouTube videos of weeding machines struggling to turn corners or metallic critters painstakingly planting a field seed by seed.

On the other hand, young farmers are also very similar to their non-farming peers: tech-savvy, purpose-driven, and entrepreneurial. Just by entering the industry, most new producers are bucking family and societal expectations. The same National Young Farmers’ Coalition survey revealed that nearly four out of five growers under 35 were not raised on a farm. The same spirit that leads young people to learn a brand-new business might also make them eager early adopters. Farmers now in their late 20s reached young adulthood well into the Internet age and are as steeped in all the same expectation of convenience and connectedness as their non-farming peers. The difference is borne out in data on broadband access. Young farmers are three times more likely than older farmers to have a working Internet connection. The leap from the 4S Siri to an AI strawberry picker is shorter than it seems.

Most ag school graduates have also undergone formal robotic indoctrination. Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says their school has “enhanced or added courses in the area of precision agriculture, machinery electronic control, and artificial intelligence to ensure that [its] students are prepared for the demands of agricultural technology systems.” If schools are teaching to the tech, graduates are likely to carve out opportunities to use their skills.

Monetary savings isn’t everything. Even Jeff Moyer—the one whose son doesn’t mind hand-milking his cows—admits that autonomous technologies can drastically improve farmers’ quality of life. Growers could spend time doing the things many of them really came to the farm to do, like marketing their products, setting up shop at farmers’ markets, or starting an agro-tourism business. Having the time to go to a son’s baseball game, too, is worth a lot. Savings potential be damned if there’s time to farm and really live life.

In the near term, some young farmers will bet on robots and some won’t. But as automation technology gets better and cheaper and young farmers gain market power, rejecting it will be more of a political statement. This may leave consumers with an increasingly splintered food system—and greater, more confusing choice.

Coming to supermarkets and restaurants near you: conventional, organic, and robot-free nosh.

Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers,” including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; smart packaging may help keep your produce from going bad; and the case for bringing back home ec. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.