Can High Tech Grow on Small Farms?

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Can High Tech Grow on Small Farms?

Quick! Picture a sustainable farm. At this time of year, there would be tomatoes, zucchini and runner beans in the fields, chickens running around on pasture; maybe even a stereotypical white picket fence. Whatever the particulars, that imaginary sustainable farm is probably pretty low tech. After all, sustainable farms are supposed to be the antidote to “industrial” agriculture.

That’s certainly what people expect to see when they come to the Stone Barns Center. It is an idyllic place. The grand fieldstone buildings overlook miles of green hills and woods. (At Stone Barns, even the poultry slaughterhouse, a shingled, lemon yellow building, is pretty.)

But the truth is that Stone Barns and many other small farms use all sorts of technology to promote sustainable practices: portable energizers power lightweight electric fences; the roof on the greenhouse is retractable; and sensors ensure that plants get only the water that is needed. Most visitors are surprised. A handful probably leave disappointed.

My question is why?

Americans love technology. And yet, when it comes to farming, we expect the new generation of farmers to go back in time, shunning the power of satellite GPS, Web-based apps, and robotics. On popular food news sites, there’s a lot more talk about tractor-free no-till farming than there is about how to harness big data to fight climate change or the enormous potential of anaerobic digestion. In the minds of many, technology is inextricably linked with industrial farming; they cannot imagine how it can be used for good. But for farmers--especially small farmers--technology is essential for environmental and financial sustainability.

“We're at the beginning of the greatest transformation of our food system since the Green Revolution: the information revolution,” says Danielle Gould, the founder of Food + Tech Connect, which helps food and agriculture startups create a better future for food. “There is a misconception that technology equals agribusiness. But technology also has the potential to level the playing field for small and mid-sized farms, by making it easier for them to manage operations, better utilize resources and sell their products.”

There are some technologies specifically geared for small farmers. Most are Web-based: AgSquared, for example, helps vegetable farmers plan and keep track of plantings, harvests, and yields. Farmeron offers similar services for small livestock farms. What there isn’t is much high-tech equipment for small farms: No small, lightweight tractors or inexpensive cooling systems that could make small farms more competitive. Companies that make wheelchairs and fancy zero-turn lawn mowers have the capabilities, says Stone Barns Four-season Farm Director Jack Algiere. The problem is that small-scale agriculture just isn’t a big enough market for companies to bother with. The result is that farmers are forced to retrofit old lawnmowers and 1950s refrigerators to approximate what they need.

Efforts to develop small-scale, affordable technology are growing. In partnership with design engineer Barry Griffin, Stone Barns has identified 34 appropriate-scale tools for small, sustainable farms. The first project is a small electric tractor—the TC-30—that will serve as the “motherboard” frame to which other tools can be attached. Up next: a solar-powered Horse Tractor and compressed-air grain harvester and processor. Farm Hack has a similar aim. Founded in 2010, the online and real-world community of farmers, designers, and engineers has worked to develop and build open-source tools that are affordable, adaptable, and easy to fix. Its successes include ideas as varied as a pedal-powered root washer and an electronic fence that can be controlled by text message.

But there is still much work to be done. Small farmers need the attention of university researchers, who for half a century have worked all but exclusively to find ways for big farms to increase yields. Today, those researchers are looking at sustainability—it’s called “precision agriculture” in the trade--but their focus remains laser-focused on industrial farms. Among the most interesting projects are drones, low-cost aerial cameras that give farmers a literal bird’s eye view of their farms, high-tech soil testing, and software that determines exactly how much fertilizer a crop needs. Just imagine what those kinds of big ideas could do for the little guy.

And there’s one more hurdle, too. Small farmers have to want to use technology. “The conventional wisdom among farmers is that we don’t necessarily need to improve technology. We need to make farming simpler,” Algiere told me. But technology is not inherently bad or good. It is simply a tool. And with small, sustainable farms facing so many challenges, we should embrace it.