Here is an interesting interview by Democracy Now with Mikel Lezamiz, director of Cooperative Dissemination at the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. Well worth it. Enjoy.
Here is an interesting interview by Democracy Now with Mikel Lezamiz, director of Cooperative Dissemination at the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. Well worth it. Enjoy.
Seems like there’s a new affliction amongst some segment of permaculturalists these days, maybe we could term it collapsicosis or collapsitis. This peculiar and apparently growing meme goes something like this: We in the permaculture community are doing everything right, and the evil people who care about evil things like money and competition are destroying the world with their globalized corporations, fiat money, agricultural subsidies, and cheap oil. Trying to compete with or displace their system is a wasted effort, and certainly using any of their methods for converting resources into products and services is akin making a deal with the devil and will taint the moral purity of permaculture. Anyway, this whole system is on shaky ground, billions of people are going to die, so let’s just wait for the fiat money house of cards to crash and burn, and then we can get around to the real business of doing permaculture.
What I am proposing, however, are permaculture enterprises that are scalable based on pooled efforts and resources. As I have already said, economies of scale are basically natural law. Failure to execute is our own fault. Lack of good business and economic data, our own fault. A scarcity of polyculture input-ouput models, our own fault. Undercapitalized permaculture enterprises…yeah, that’s partly our fault too.
I am offering a concrete solution that reflects the reality of the world we live in today. And this solution is directly within your locus of control right now. We don’t have to ask permission, get a government grant, or wait for the collapse of fiat money to create worker-owned permaculture production cooperatives. Any other arguments that are not based on strategies of direct social action are only so much white noise.
This week’s podcast epsiode, the Failure of Permaculture, has created a lot of debate and some controversy.
A first point is expressed in the below quote from @ajtarnas.
“The podcast doesn’t include any case studies of permaculture or agroforestry projects failing, it shows cases of small farmers (two of whom were hobby farmers) failing. Bren Smith would definitely qualify as a perennial polyculturalist, but he doesn’t mention it at all”
True but the point is still illustrated by the case studies I provided: homestead to small commercial scale agricultural production is a huge financial challenge. Can it be done profitably? Sure, people do it, but permaculture is chronically capital starved. Why? Bren might not mention permaculture, but he is practicing it. And I’m sure he works with others who practice it too. And they are all struggling. We could find plenty of cases of permaculture farms who face the same constraints as the hobby farmers.
And again I come back to my central (but evolving) thesis: permaculture is failing because we are only practicing one part of it effectively. Yes, we have got down pretty good the polycultures, the soil biology, the high density grazing, and the seed production. Not across the board, and there’s a lot of scaling up to be done, but we have good replicable models for working with agroecological production systems.
But our understanding of economics is poor. Let us take the time to define an economy of scale. According to Wikipedia:
economies of scale are the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to size, output, or scale of operation, with cost per unit of output generally decreasing with increasing scale as fixed costs are spread out over more units of output.
Economic models of economies of scale are supported by many years of data, the laws of the physical world, and common sense. The graph below illustrates the point, as enterprise size increases, average cost per unit decreases coupled with a commensurate increase in productivity and volume.
As economies of scale are achieved, the enterprise benefits from many of the other advantages of size:
And then this comment from the thread on reddit:
“Of course, the ‘small permaculture farm’ model is economically less efficient than big agro-industrial farms, less adapated to today’s financialized economy.”
My counterpoint is that we’ve done this to ourselves. Nobody’s fault but ours. Who said permaculture farms have to all be small? We have not fully understood that Bill Mollison had a view of permaculture that included finance and economics, and we have mostly ignored that to our peril. If we that were not the case, we would see hundreds, if not thousands of large permaculture enterprises creating employment and regenerating degraded landscapes by understanding and leveraging optimized economies of scale.
And here another quote, again from the reddit thread:
Don’t you think that the issue is not permaculture having an economy of scale, but that the current market created by subsidy and a permissive attitude towards externalities creates an environment in which only very specific approaches to farming are economically viable?
Yes, I do think that the regulatory environment makes permaculture difficult indeed, but if we were creative permaculture designers we would design our way out of this problem. Like I said, economies of scale are basically a law of nature; as a rule, we are not incorporating this in our permaculture designs. We are supposed to be observers of our world, and model our permaculture accordingly. If we want to produce more, access more land, become a bigger economic and political player, then we have to implement some form of economies of scale. Even if you personally, reader, are not interested in participating in such an endeavor, I would hope that you still support the concept as an essential part of a permaculture grand strategy.
Update: This comment thread on reddit for the podcast episode is red hot right now.
This is an excerpt from this week’s podcast where I argue that permaculture is failing.
Sustainable agriculture faces a crisis. In many ways this crisis reflects the broader social and economic breakdown crisis that American families are facing today: economic hardship, social inequality, environmental degradation…all of these are reflected in 21st century agriculture. So now reader, I ask you these questions: Why did you get interested in organics, permaculture, and sustainable agriculture in the first place? Was it because you felt you could be a part of transitioning agriculture into a new and sustainable model? Or because you romanticized about the agrarian traditions and lifestyles of a bygone era? Was it to prove a point, that there is a better way?
Or perhaps you were born into a farming family, and wanted to carry on the legacy, like Kasha Bialas. Bialas describes the life of the 21st century American small-holder:
I’m a single mom with a fifth grader to wrangle and I spend the bulk of my early morning and evening hours at the computer organizing our CSA farm share program, developing newsletters, making website changes, creating advertising fliers and recipe handouts, and occasionally doing the mom thing. My days are spent doing all manner of farm work.
I will also ask you this: Do you think we are winning? Does the portrait Kasha paints, of lone crusader, struggling to keep her head above water, sound to you like a movement triumphant? Let me draw your attention once again to last week’s episode of Agroinnovations with Dr. Joe Kovach. While Dr. Kovach has demonstrated the possibility of earning $90,000/acre on a small scale, this demonstration comes with a number of critical caveats that Kovach himself identifies in the course of the interview. I have summarized them here for you:
To be sure, I have great respect for Dr. Kovach and many others who are helping to show us the way. Nevertheless, these constraints, and the many others that I have shared with you today, paint a bleak picture indeed for the future of sustainable food. I ask you to consider the possibility that the permaculture movement is failing. The reason for this failure is that we have focused all of our energy on biological production techniques, many and most of which are sound, effective, and replicable, yet we have done so on top of a broken socio-economic model. If permaculture, or holistic management, or biodynamics, or any other such production or even decision-focused technique, was so effective, why then do we hear story after story of young farmer’s struggling, going into debt, working ungodly hours day after day, year after year? The only people with any peace of mind are those who have made some enormous sum of money in other endeveavours and have adopted farming as a lifestyle or a hobby, or the rock-star Salatin’s of the world who make a good portion of their money on speaking tours and books.
I write this not to be discouraging or defeatist, but to impress upon you that it is time we started creating the socio-economic models that will make permaculture successful. We have many options at our disposal, including worker-owned cooperatives, labor unions, and collective bargaining agreements. It is probably fair to say some of these models have yet to be created. I do believe that permaculture could one day provide a substantial portion of our food supply, but only if and when we begin to work together collectively. The model of the rugged individual crusader, working her farm into the late hours of the evening, needs to be abandoned, as it has proven to be unmanageable and ironically enough, unsustainable. In its place, we must forge a new model of collective democratic action.
Here’s some video I shot a while back. Very nice close views. They seem to be all of a single species…maybe that helps them to get along?
Recently I was interviewed for a CNBC article by Mark Koba entitled “Frankenstates: Winning the Agriculture Tech War.” In it, Mr. Koba has the following passage taken from our interview:
While most tout the progress that technical innovation has brought and will bring to agriculture, there are still words of caution about its impact.
“The trend for things in agriculture is to get bigger and more consolidated, and that’s creating two markets,” said Frank Aragona, CEO of Agricultural Innovations, an information source for agricultural strategies.
Aragona, who has a masters degree in forestry, said the worry is that large farm operations can more easily afford the new high-tech advances, while smaller farms can’t, creating a technology gap of sorts.
“A farmer may have a tractor that’s 20 years old and now outdated,” he said. “But many farmers are saying it’s too capital intensive to go out and buy the newer, more advanced models.”
While the quote illustrates a recurring theme in our interview (the increasingly capital intensive nature of industrial, commodity agriculture), it does not provide the full context of my comments.
Commodity agriculture is growing ever bigger, pushing the boundaries of yield per acre, increasing the need for industrial scale inputs and machinery. This has created the “get big or get out” dynamic experienced by so many farmers, particularly in the United States. Commodity agriculture requires bigger machines, bigger science, bigger markets, bigger acreage, and ultimately, more consolidation.
What was left out of the article however, is the countervailing trend of small. This is a trend largely driven by consumer demand to purchase food that is sourced locally, produced sustainably, and built upon a relationship with the farmer and her team. To be sure, the percentage of the nation’s food coming from this economic model is still minuscule, but rising, and with it rises a recognition of the importance in supporting alternative models to industrial agriculture.
This trend extends into the realm of technological development. Rather than waiting for big ag and corporate America to invest in appropriate scale technologies for the small and medium-sized farm operation, we have instead opted to build these technologies ourselves. An open source ethos accompanies this can-do attitude, as we seek to build the hardware and software that will assist producers with a range of farm activities and challenges:
Farmhack is an organization acting as an umbrella for many of these activities, but other projects have also made great progress in the development of open source agricultural tools, notably the Open Source Ecology Project.
Together we are developing a set of tools that are freely available to all, with open hardware specifications built on top of open source software code with freely available documentation. We believe that appropriate agricultural technology should be a part of the commons, much like the natural resources on which sustainable food production depends. Therefore we are building a collaborative network to develop and deploy these technologies around the country and around the world, with the hope that freely available, open source, appropriate technologies will help us confront the many social, economic, and environmental challenges of 21st century civilization.
Attracting beneficial insects is simple. Plant flowers! Lot’s of them, everywhere, of all different kinds. Here is a lady beetle on a daisy flower in our garden. And if you see aphids, white flies, or other pests on your flowers, don’t kill them! Soon enough the lacewings, ladybugs, and others will come along to clean up the mess.
A twitter conversation with @ajtarnas has sparked me to write this post. The conversation started with this tweet, quoting and linking to an article by AFP:
— agroinnovations (@agroinnovations) May 30, 2014
@agroinnovations no context. a million calories of oats is $60 in the US. a few percent +/- is meaningless unless you make lessthan ~$2/day.
— A.J. Tarnas (@ajtarnas) May 30, 2014
The conversation concluded with this exchange:
@agroinnovations not at all clear from fearmongering "journalism" on commodity "inflation". no reliable perspective on sub-$2/day humans.
— A.J. Tarnas (@ajtarnas) May 30, 2014
So, in response to the comment that there is no context provided on this issue, and that food price inflation only affects people making less than $2 a day, I offer the following quick analysis. First a brief primer on the concept of demand elasticity. Elastic demand is when the percentage change in the quantity demanded exceeds the percentage change in price. Inelastic demand is the opposite, that is when the percentage change in the quantity demanded is less than the percentage change in price. The case of food prices will help to clarify this concept.
In the United States, as @ajtarnas points out, demand for food is relatively inelastic. That is, a 4% change in prices will decrease demand by less than 4%. Consider, however, that in most developed countries less than 20% of household income is spent on food. As the percentage of household income spent on food increases, demand tends to become more elastic. In India, 56% of household income is spent on food, in Tanzania 62% of household income is spent on food. In these cases, a 4% increase in food prices may result in 5% or greater decrease in demand; not because people don’t need or want food, but simply because they can’t afford it.
This phenomenon does not only play out from country to country, but also from household to household. Under current market conditions, the primary factor that drives access to food is income. What seems like small price flucuations to households high on the global income ladder are huge price fluctations to those on the low rungs of the global income ladder. One can easily imagine a family in Tanzania with more than enough money to eat a healthy diet. The social safety net in the United States, in the form of food stamps and subsidized housing, helps to mitigate the more extreme examples of malnutrition and starvation that are commonly witnenssed in Africa and India.
Even in the United States, poor nutrition is typically associated with low income families. So while these families may not be starving in the same way as those in Somali refugee camps, they are more vulnerable to obesity and poor nutrition as they seek low-cost substitutes to healthy foods.
Volatile food markets have played a big role in social unrest over the past 7 years. The impacts of climate change, energy scarcity, unstable financial markets, and political corruption will continue to exacerbate an already precarious global food security environment. While global commodities like corn, rice, wheat, and soy, will likely remain fairly abudant and relatively cheap for many years to come, other key ingredient to a healthy diet, like meat, fruit, milk, and vegetables, may become more expensive, especially for those functioning in the difficult world of elastic food demand. Fortunately, these products are relatively simple to produce for oneself, thus the permaculture solution is a viable way to supplement global human nutrition.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. — Chinese Proverb
We planted a Red Gold Nectarine and a Summer Crisp Pear. Varieties that are both well-suited to our climate, and they were grown by our local providers at Tooley’s Trees.
When choosing and planting a fruit tree, be aware of the following factors:
Just got myself a P4460 Kill-A-Watt EZ Energy Meter that measures electrical loads from a standard 120 VAC wall outlet. This is a nice device that can help home owners find those pesky inefficient loads, and is a great energy conservation tool. It also allows you to put in a Kwh rate ($0.09/Kwh where we live) and then will calculate your running cost for a specific load on the fly.
This device is also useful for solar system designers. First, it can be used to help homeowners identify inefficient loads so they can take some conservation measures. This is a good step before sizing a solar array, as it can often reduce the total number of panels required. Generally, inefficiencies stem from household appliances like refrigerators and space heaters. Phantom loads also create small but insidious energy “leaks” that can add up over time; common phantom loads are cell phone and laptop chargers.
After taking conservation measures, the designer can use this tool to do a complete load analysis for the household or business. Generally, this approach is uncommon for grid-tied systems, as the local utility will provide average daily consumption information that designers can then plugin into their equations. For off-grid systems, however, this tool can provide an invaluable source of information to help gauge potential load requirements. A small tool like this is probably most useful for the typical homeowner or for the small business, but is less useful in large commercial and heavy industrial environments. And at $23 on Ebay, this isn’t a bad investment at all for the energy-concious homeowner.
Over the past several weeks I have been corresponding with Dorn Cox of farmhack.net about the uses of fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), more commonly known as drones, for farm monitoring applications. Most people who follow this topic immediately think of quadcopters when they think of small remotely controlled UAV’s, but fixed-wing models have a number of features that are advantageous.
First, the most immediate benefit is the flight time when compared with quad or hex copter models. A quad is likely to get between 15 and 20 minutes of flight time on a single charge. Naturally, running all those motors at high speeds drains battery charge quite quickly. A fixed wing craft like the 3DR Aero has a flight time of 40 minutes on a single charge; one can cover signiciant territory in 40 minutes.
Currently fixed-wing craft can fly a path of GPS waypoints with much better precision and efficiency than a quad; this may change as flight controller hardware and software improve, which is happening quite quickly. Below is a sample image, which is quite comparable to the aerial imagery most remote sensing professionals get from more traditional aerial photography.
3D Robotics is now offering the 3DR Aero for a fairly reasonable price, though certainly you would have to put this rig to work to get a good return on investment. You might be thinking what I was thinking when I first saw this rig: a styrofoam frame! That will get wrecked in five minutes. But Dorn assures me that this stuff is pretty sturdy: “The EPO foam is tough stuff, can be repaired and is like flying your electronics in a shipping package- the sky walker airframe they use is less than $200 and some of them are less than $100. Cost is all in components”.
Before you go out and buy yourself one of these rigs, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this process is easy. According to Dorn, there are three areas that will require a signficant time investment and learning curve: the navigation software, the image processing software, and most importantly, learning how to fly. Fortunately for fixed-wing craft, there are some pretty good flight simulator software packages out there. Here’s a pretty good forum post that compares RC flight simulator software.
And remember, this technology is still in development, rapid development to be sure, but development nonetheless. There will be factors that you may not have thought of, like the nose shifting up slightly during stable flight, which affects image quality, or the hours required to get navigation software and camera to communicate, or the fact that you have to learn how to use CHDK (Cannon Hack Development Kit) if you want to have any chance of making this work. And of course, getting the images is only the beginning, then you have to process them and get good quality data. Samplepoint software is a good option for getting some usable data in consolidated fashion, though most aerial Samplepoint applications I’ve seen are still fairly experimental. The good news, again, is that development is happening at breakneck speeds. If you’re adventurous and technically-minded, you might want to dive right in. If not, you may want to check back in six months to a year and see if the technology has matured enough to make it completely plug and play.
This documentary is great. Definitely worthwhile.
Verizon spent millions of dollars on this ad campaign, considering it ran numerous times during the NFL Playoffs and the Superbowl. Agduino is a huge growth industry, but who will control the destiny of information intensive agriculture? Corporate America, or the OSAT hordes?
The race is on.
According to the University of Missouri, 2014 estimates for the U.S. cattle herd come in at 87.7 million head, down from 90.7 million in 2012, and continuing a downward trend that began in 2007. Consider the following points:
The bottom line is that beef is going to get more expensive, by as much as 4% in 2014. In economic parlance, this means that supply should increase as producers respond to higher market prices. However, as we have seen, agricultural economies can not respond like other industries (e.g. manufacturing) and ramp-up production at the flip of a switch. There are too many variables at play, many indicating that beef prices may stay high, and the downard trajectory of the cattle herd may continue for many years to come, particularly if drought persists and as the aging demographics of the ranching community play out.
This portends big potential changes to the U.S. food supply in the years and decades to come. A likely shift I foresee is younger farmers on smaller landscapes producing alternative non-ruminant protein sources, including poultry, fish, mushrooms, and even, perhaps insects.
The title here is not to suggest that Apitronics is inferior to the ManyLabs/SODAQ stack. Apitronics is built around the Beagle Bone Black, which was featured in a previous post about Agduino. Apitronics doesn’t use Postgresql, instead the system uses CouchDB, which may interface cleanly in data transfers to PostGIS, but I’m not sure. In general, I get the sense that Manylabs may be a bit further along in the process, but this is difficult to gauge with the information I have available. It would be nice if some of the disparate groups could begin to find a way to merge projects under a common umbrella, at least for the software development piece.
An interesting component of Apitronics is the “Hive” approach.
From the Apitronics website:
Our architecture is extremely modular consisting of Bees that can be “plugged” into any sensor and actuator, allowing the same device to be a weather station, an irrigation controller, or a control system for a greenhouse. Multiple Bees are coordinate [sic] by a single Hive which is a gateway device plugged into the user’s router. This device is a local coordinator for the entire network and preserves functionality without internet connectivity, making the Apitronics platform more robust and reliable than other cloud-based solutions.
I’ll be curious to see how this approach plays out in practice. Overall, Apitronics seems to be a solid project with committed project leaders. You can follow the primary lead for this project on twitter @thierylouis.
Before we get into the details of their project, let’s outline some of the elements needed for the successful design and deployment of agduino (in no particular order):
Manylabs is focused on creating sensor networks for educational and environmental monitoring purposes. They are the driving force behind a large software development effort which will bring us a stable database/sensor/arduino interface. The end-user will be able to configure custom sensor networks, build relay controls, and collect and process data with no need to write code. Manylabs is building the system using a Postgresql database backend, with every intention of tying the system into PostGIS in the future. All the software and hardware is open source.
Seeedstudio is the primary hardware provider, and they have a pretty big selection of lot’s of arduino add ons. Have a look at their website, lot’s to see.
Finally, the SODAQ board is a solar powered data acquisition board which is still in development. It doesn’t use SD cards to store data (which are notoriously unreliable), has built-in memory, and can be powered by low-powered solar panels in remote locations.
Stay tuned as I continue to break down some of the other great agduino candidates.
Through lot’s of different conversations with people, I have started to put together a set of links that tracks some of the hardware/software stacks that are likely great candidates to work with agduino.
Most of us working in the area believe that a great deal of the software code already exists, but likely has not been integrated into a complete package. At it’s current iteration, this list is primarily focused on hardware. See comments below to understand some of the context around each hardware unit. If you feel something should be added to this list, leave your comments in the comment thread for this post, or if you prefer contact me.
Comments: Cat5 vs. wireless is a pretty big debate right now. The Cat5 advocates say that power and data link can be provided over Cat5, and the implementation is simpler and involves less software and/or configuration. Wireless proponents believe that wireless is cheaper and easier to deploy, with greater flexibility.
My own opinion is that we will likely use a combination of the two, with great variation across production models and landscape scale. In hydroponics, greenhouse, aquaponics-type systems, there seems little reason to use wireless. On larger scale landscapes (e.g. a Western cattle ranch), we need to use wireless technology. Understanding radio frequency characteristics will help us to understand the best transmission frequency, which is likely not 2.4 Ghz (the standard transmission frequency of Wifi). 900 Mhz has a much greater range, with potentially lower power requirements.
More easily write interfaces to customize the control systems for the arduino.
Comments: I can’t comment on Ninja blocks directly because I’ve never used them. However, an immature software architecture is the biggest bottleneck to agduino right now. So a coding system that allows non-coders to build interfaces could be huge, because it will greatly accelerate adoption rates and actual real-world application.
A complete system for managing indoor saltwater aquariums. This is probably the most robust open source agduino-like community that I have come across. It’s built around a commercial platform, but the business model seems primarily focused on hardware sales. They’ve figured the manufacturing piece out, and they hired a good coder to write solid open source, cross-platform code. Reef Angel could likely be used for other applications, particularly aquaponics.
Comments: One of the nice things about the TRE is that it’s manufactured in the United States. In the great State of Texas. The TRE will expand the available code libraries for the microcontroller, because it will be able to use different coding languages besides just C+ (i.e. Java, Python, PHP, Perl). It makes a lot of sense to find ways for the microcontroller to run its own code, and to tap into the huge software libraries that are available from some very mature FOSS projects. This development could unfold very rapidly.
See my previous post on the topic.
Comments: Similar to the TRE above; this is ready to load Linux OS and go. Runs Ubuntu, Android, Angstrom (a Linux build exclusively for embedded). Nice. More on this to come.
Comments: Fairly self-explanatory. Another attempt to turn the duino into a mini-computer, like the Tre and the Beaglebone.
Comments: A modular sensor system for connecting to the Raspberry PI. Anything that makes prototyping faster, easier, and more efficient is good.
Comments: Another attempt to make attaching sensors a plug-n-play affair. If you plug this into arduino, there will still probably be a lot of code compilation to do.
The Arduino Tre looks to be a great candidate as the CPU for agduino. According to the release notes, the Tre promises to deliver “100 times more performance with the Sitara-processor-based TRE than on the Arduino Leonardo or Uno. This performance opens the doors to more advanced Linux-powered applications.”
Other very useful features of the Tre:
If we could build a .deb package that deploys simply and quickly: apt-get install agduino. Then the user just has to configure some .conf files, tell the duino where to find the sensors, servos, relays, etc., and it’s ready to deploy. It could be controlled via android, or simple web interface.
Check out Reef Angel for a good, but incomplete, analogy for this.
I’ve built a G+ community for people to interact specifically about topics related to arduino for agriculture. If you are interested in this topic, please join. There is a lot of potential to have some great interactions. G+ may or may not be the best platform. Let’s get people interacting and see where it goes.
Click on the link below to join:
Another arduino for aquaponics prototype. The economics of this remains of great interest. Sure the prototypes are expensive; there is a lot of development work going into it. But if the model is open source, development costs should go down exponentially once the platform matures. The step to jump start the process will be to deploy at greater scales. It will yield greater return on investment, and get sufficient leverage to accelerate the rate of progress.
An excerpt from my interview with Dr. Elaine Ingham. Thanks to Todd Hoff for the transcription.
Bacteria and fungi are really good at holding nutrients in their bodies. If you don’t have nutrients in the soil then you need bacteria and fungi. They also put up castle walls to protect plant root systems from insect pests and from fungal and bacterial diseases. The plant itself puts out certain kinds of sugars and proteins and carbohydrates to build that castle wall. By exuding different nutrients it attracts different bacteria and fungi to protect against particular diseases or hold certain nutrients. The plant has a lot of communication and control of what goes around its surfaces. Plants know how to protect themselves. You don’t need pesticides.
This video is an excellent primer on the state of arduino and agriculture. Clearly still a lot of development work to do, but amazing potential to scale the impact of a single individual or small team.
I’ve talked to a few folks in the arduino for agriculture space over the past few days or so. There is a lot going in the arena, and after having looked at just some of what’s happening, it is absolutely the Wild West for in the Internet of ag-things. There’s a lot of potential applications, and there are a lot of creative and smart people going in different directions. This type of diversity is healthy for the future prospects of low-cost automated agricultural applications using microcontrollers.
@Indi_food asked me the following question:
Just imagine the gains if flood irrigation changed to drip feeding that only initiated when soil moisture reached xx and evaporation levels went below xx. Is this the kind of thing that arduino can be programmed to do?
Yes! That’s exactly the type of thing arduino could do. Let’s flesh that scenario out more:
Agroduino is hooked into set of pressurized drip irrigation lines running to raised bed vegetables. The vegetables species and varieties are chosen to be drought tolerant (great in a place like New Mexico). A set of sensors are reading soil moisture and growing conditions. Data is sent to a mysql cloud database, then fed out over the internet to a hand-held Android device. Android reads data stream, then alerts you when conditions drop below certain thresholds. The producer monitors closely. A number of factors are taken into consideration:
If the conditions are right, the producer can control how much water the plants receive with precision, all from the handheld device.
The granularity of control really makes it worthwhile. The difficulty right now is the immaturity of the hardware/software stacks. As a producer, you shouldn’t have to learn ac/dc circuits to be able to benefit from this type of system. You don’t have to learn this to use a computer, or a cellphone, why should you for these devices? They should be plug and play with existing digital electronics hardware/software stacks that we are using now. But they are not. Not yet. So the ROI isn’t there yet for a standard producer, many of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water. We’re in the stage right now where people were with home computers 40 years ago…really wonky and geeky, not yet mainstream. Same could be said for 3D printing. But it will go fast, fast now, because we’re all connected and writing open source code and we can produce open hardware dirt cheap in China.
After having been in this space for a long time, I am acutely aware that sustainable agriculture is one of the most promising and underfunded initiatives underway around the world. And because most people who are undertaking it are landless and poor, or land rich and cash poor, there is little actual resource available to invest in acquiring land, much less improving it.
So we have to find another way. We have to accept that the land base we are going to be managing, for the foreseeable future, is going to be small, small, small except for the few rich folks who are into organic and/or support it because it’s the right thing to do. They are the minority. So how much food can we produce on an acre? 10 acres? 100? We need to feed millions in small spaces. That’s not easy, or probably possible, but if we have a shot at it, then we’ll have to use every technological tool at our disposal.
I got an arduino, an arduino sensor shield, a solid-state relay, a set of climatological sensors, a bluetooth dongle, and an Android phone. Would it be possible to build an all-in-one agricultural management box that can be easily prototyped and deployed in the field? Or how about an entire network of them, a series of field-deployed small devices that collect data from the field, and then send the data a to a cloud server running open source agricultural record-keeping software. Then send the data to an open source permaculture simulation engine. And while we’re at it, how about adding a series of electric relays, servomotors, electric pumps and solenoid valves to manage greenhouse structures, aquaponics tanks, and irrigation systems. Could I build such a thing? Will you help me?
I’ve rebuilt the site with a mobile-ready theme. So now you can browse the site and listen to the podcast with full mobile compatability. Go ahead, try it out. And the good news is there are more podcasts to come, very very soon. So stay tuned. And follow agroinnovations on twitter. Happy New Year.
Corn crops were decimated by a severe drought last summer, pushing prices to a precipitous high. So farmers have had to get creative about what they feed their cattle. Some common solutions: chocolate bars, rainbow sprinkles, gummy worms, and, yes, cookies.
I hope these cattlemen realize that there’s plenty of corn in gummy worms and rainbow sprinkles. This a clever stop-gap measure, but certainly not sustainable.
When Corn Costs Soar, Let Cows Eat Cake (Wired Magazine)
Tens of thousands of trees have disappeared from parks and woodlands this winter across Greece, authorities said, in a worsening problem that has had tragic consequences as the crisis-hit country’s impoverished residents, too broke to pay for electricity or fuel, turn to fireplaces and wood stoves for heat.
Wood was humanity’s primary source of energy for thousands of years, and still is an critical source of energy in “developing” nations. Expect wood, and hence deforestation stories, to regain its importance in the global energy economy. And start planting trees.
I stumbled on the term “agrocollapse” in fairly typical fashion. Collapse is a concept drawing a lot of attention and discussion these days…and just as we’ve built out a lot of words by putting the word “agro” in front of them (agroforestry, agroindustry, etc.), agrocollapse seemed like a compelling and worthwhile concept.
What really set me forward on the concept, however, was when I attended a sustainable agriculture conference in November of 2012. As is often the case at these events, many familiar faces and old hands were in attendance. The topic was “How to Feed 9 Billion”. The agenda was surprisingly tame: soil ecology, improved grazing management, plant breeding, fruit tree production, and the like. Few of the presenters addressed the really tough questions, like What happens to sustainable ag as fossil fuel depletion continues? Why aren’t we feeding 100 million people using these techniques now, instead of talking about 9 billion? How can we really do any of the things we’re talking about on the scale we’re imagining when most of the land is in the hands of the top 1%? None of these questions were on the agenda. After all, we wouldn’t want to make people think too hard, and we certainly wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
The one presenter who did address the issue of land reform was from Latin America; of course, the circumstance would require a latino to feel culturally comfortable with the topic, as land reform has been a powerful revolutionary force in Latin America for at least 100 years. For him, the topic is not so taboo as it is here in the United States.
As the conference progressed, I began in private conversations to press people about my concerns. Why aren’t we talking about these things? After all of our technical achievements over the years, why aren’t we providing for a greater portion of the nation’s food supply? Do we really believe that we’ll just gradually win, because our way is better, and we will just replace industrial agriculture with sustainable agriculture, the same way one replaces an old pair of shoes with a new pair? Inevitably, the response that I got was generally the same: sooner or later, the industrial agricultural model is going to collapse. And be replaced by what? By us, who barely have the man-power and the land to feed 30 million people? And what will happen to our movement as the beating heart of our country’s food supply implodes? Will we even have the fuel to get our products to market? Are we preparing ourselves for the collapse of the industrial food system, so that our own systems have the resilience to continue during the collapse of the industrial model and beyond?
These questions, I came to realize, are the questions of the agrocollapse. It is frightening and alarming that the general public is not grappling with the great dilemmas of our time; it is downright Apocalyptic that even the sustainable agriculture community is not able to do so.
My own construction of agrocollapse is multi-faceted: it is a set of scenarios for thinking about the future, a series of data points from the present to improve our understanding, and perhaps most importantly, it is a developing set of strategies for thriving under difficult circumstances.
But it is also a process underway in the real world, one that runs parallel to the slow and step-wise decline of industrial civilization as it slides down the slope of energy descent. Agrocollapse is not a simultaneous global catastrophe, and it is certainly not something that occurs in isolation from the many other social, economic, political, and natural forces that shape our world. It is driven by financial collapse, peak oil, climate change, war, and social revolution; therefore, much like climate change and peak oil, it impacts different groups differently at different times.
Some may benefit, at least temporarily, from its effects. Just as oil companies benefit from price spikes associated with peak production, and hedge funds benefit from rampant speculation and volatility in collapsing financial markets, so too do industrial agricultural producers benefit from high commodity prices resulting from similar phenomena. Others may be devastated by its effects, like the rancher or pastoralist who is is forced to cull and destock the herd as a result of climate disruption and drought.
The pace of agrocollapse, and collapse in general, will be tempered by global connectivity and massive investments in maintaining the status quo; many have argued that the former is a vulnerability of the current system, but in fact global connectivity has acted as a buffer against localized collapse. After a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, aid poured into the country, unevenly and marred by bungling and corruption, to be sure, but the flow of resources certainly helped to mitigate the worst effects of the disaster. The case is similar around the world: a desert community imports fossil fuels to run electric pumps during years of drought (Phoenix), refugees of seasonal floods are provided with tents, food, and medicine (Staten Island). Manufactured goods, energy, and human resources move around the world at amazing speeds and with incredible efficiency; thus the pace of collapse is slow and uneven, straining our resources, which spurs our descent, but never quite resulting in immediate and global Armageddon.
The questions of the agrocollapse will be the main theme of this blog moving forward. If we think, and plan, and prepare, perhaps we will preserve the vital elements of permaculture, and some critical manufactured technologies, so that our children and grandchildren will inherit a world that is livable and comfortable, and their society will be one that is aware of our history and the greatest elements of our cultural legacy. This is our task.