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“A farmer may have a tractor that’s 20 years old and now outdated,” he said.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:
- Sensor networks to detect changes in climate, soil, and water conditions in real time
- Aerial monitoring tools like fixed-wing drones for imagery collection and analysis
- Actuators to digitally control legacy infrastructure like fence gates, well pumps, irrigation valves and greenhouse ventilation systems.
- Wildlife monitoring tools, like trail cameras, to get accurate head counts and monitor the conditions of elk and deer herds.
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.