Why Do Visions of Farming’s Future Never Involve Farmers?

A robotic approach to agriculture is nothing new—and it perpetuates problems with the existing system.

A robot farmer holding a shovel in a field of wheat.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by miriam-doerr/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ysbrandcosijn/iStock/Getty Images Plus, James Baltz/Unsplash, and Photodisc.

Now the robots are coming for our farms. The Washington Post tells us “farmworkers could be replaced by robots sooner than we think.” The Guardian paints a picture of “space bots with lasers, killing plants.” The New Yorker calls ours the “age of robot farmers,” forecasting that “the future of fruit-and-vegetable farming is automation.” To illustrate that, the New Yorker writes about Berry 5.1, which has so far cost $10 million to design and would pluck strawberries more precisely than clock-punching farmhands. It also highlights an indoor vertical farm in New Jersey that runs on an operating system, grows salad greens with LED lights that are “the cheapest and most efficient way of replacing the sun,” and operates like the automated Amazon fulfillment center its owner used to manage. Many of these kinds of articles end with the rather generic claim that the efficiency of “precision agriculture” will save labor and save the planet.

What boosters really mean by the robotics of “precision agriculture” is more of an A.I. approach, with cloud-enabled, network-assisted, data-intensive autonomous machines, none of which are cheap, all of which will require maintenance that farmers may not be able to do themselves. Altogether, it will drive farmers deeper into the debt they already carry. They carry that debt, and indebtedness to off-farm suppliers, because we already have a robot present and past. It’s here and has been for a long time, as so-called robot farming is another way to think about industrial agriculture and its ethos of labor-saving efficiencies. In 2013, Matthew Yglesias rightly noted that “the use of the word ‘robots’ as a synonym for ‘labor-saving technology’ is a rhetorical trick to make long-standing trends seem new and alarming.” This robotic farming future is not the unalloyed good the venture capitalists would have us believe. It may, in fact, take us further down the road that got us into our agricultural problems in the first place, encouraging more monocropping and land expansion while reducing the resilience of diversified planting schemes. What’s more, it perpetuates a long lineage of fashioning the future of farming without actual farmers or their knowledge.

That lineage began about a century ago. In the shadows of broader manufacturing development, tractors, harvesters, reapers, threshers, and combines (which smartly combined several of them) would give us the farm of tomorrow. The goal was to improve productivity so we could grow more food with fewer farmers. And it basically worked. By 1910, agricultural labor was 31 percent of the U.S. population, down from 56 percent a half-century earlier. (It was 12 percent in 1950, 2 percent in 2000.) Displaced farmers found jobs in other industrial sectors, at the cost of further separating growers from eaters.

Chemical notions about future farming followed quickly. DuPont’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” slogan made its debut in 1935. That same decade, an upstart movement called farm chemurgy emerged. Chemurgy was a strange neologism meant to evoke the chemical energy of the farm. It would help us secure industrial needs from the raw materials of agriculture. Henry Ford was a promoter, as Fordist principles of mass production could be applied to the farm too. He even made a demonstration car entirely out of farm products—soybeans—to validate the idea.

This too wasn’t good for farmers. A book by the head of the Farm Chemurgic Council, Wheeler McMillen, was simply titled Too Many Farmers. “Chemurgists had little interest in the farmers’ plight,” as historian Mark Finlay put it. The point was that farmers should be like factory owners, running their farms not just with but like machines. The term chemurgy didn’t last, but the movement presaged the farm policy of coming decades. Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, was a farm chemurgist and promoter of the template later summarized as “get big or get out.” Most farmers, again, got out.

Along the way were atomic visions of the future of farming. In the wake of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, the United Nations organized research for the induced mutation of crops. Historian Helen Anne Curry writes in Evolution Made to Order that many scientists thought “radiation could be a valuable tool for producing variations, providing breeders with new genetic combinations nature had not.” Needless to say, nuclear farming would likely be so capital-intensive and risk-sensitive it could only happen at grand scales and through the purview of overarching (non-farmer) direction. These were not proposals for a safe farm.

By the 1970s and ’80s, the dreams of mutation-supporting atomic scientists found a safer home with biomolecular and then genetically modified futures that increased yields in American fields. A more productive farm is one with fewer farmers. In what could have been a column from basically any year of the 20th century, an agricultural loan officer told the New York Times in 1985 in the midst of the farm crisis—the one with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Farm Aid—that “the farmers we are losing are the young, the knowledgeable, the aggressive, the ones American agriculture can least afford to lose.” The best-laid plans for the future of farming seemed to still be missing farmers and their know-how.

These are all instances of the history of the future, a subfield that studies how people of the past have thought about what lay ahead. A Future Tense gathering a few years ago summed it up: “The way we think about the future depends a lot on the present.” That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it puts the lie to claims of epic creativity. It’s not innovative, is the thing. Give us mechanical industrial manufacturing, and we’ll give you mechanical futures. Give us Better Living Through Chemistry and Fordism, and we’ll give you an industrial chemical future. Give us the hydrogen bomb, and we’ll paint a picture of atomic farming. Put biological research, genetics, and the backing of all the prior regimes together—mechanical, chemical, etc.—and we have a genetically modified future. They accrue rather than negate.

So yes, give us a digital revolution, and we’ll give you digitally robotic farms, cloud-based, network-enabled, venture capital–supported. You say A.I.? We say farm. What could go wrong?

Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of Small Robot Company, doesn’t think anything could. Of possible downsides, he told the Guardian in 2018, “we can’t see any.” He said he “expected farmers to be quite luddite about the adoption of new technology.” But farmers are in fact tech-savvy professionals who already use GPS-guided tractors, satellite-based systems, and network-assisted crop management. Condescending to them reveals the divide between agriculture and start-up culture in ways that restate the actual problem: So much of our population is divorced from the patterns of agriculture—in part because of all the prior future visions—that we sink deeper into the same rut by suggesting that yet more distancing technologies will save the farm. The A.I. robotic future again denies farmers’ situational ingenuity, a nonrobotic quality if there ever was one.

Robotic farms are a commitment to the further separation of agriculture and humanity, to the detriment of both. The impulse can make sense, as farm work is difficult, burdensome—please beware the romanticizer. I’d be suspicious of anyone claiming we don’t need to address the demands of farm labor. But the larger issues are what kind of farms we want to have and what food means when it’s divorced from farmers. Resisting the robot invasion is no anti-technology posture, but a petition to engineer our designs on the patterns of healthier land stewardship.

What would the future of farming look like if our technological efforts were aimed at the fuller problem at hand, the dehumanization of agriculture? For one thing, farmers and farm justice organizations would be the centerpiece of efforts to improve agriculture, rather than obstacles to be overcome. For another, engineering research to help farm work would be the focal point for research, projects that are people-, not data-driven. The causes of agrarian problems cannot be digitally erased, as if farming were a CGI screen onto which any old vista can be projected. Working beyond that misperception is more innovative than anything you might see on future seasons of Silicon Valley.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.