May 4, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

The Future of Farming

I was talking recently with a farmer who farms a big spread in northern Illinois. There’s more to this these days, he said, than just going out and plowing the back 40. Where and how he plows depends largely on the data he gets daily from three satellites orbiting a thousand miles above his farm.  

This is the modern face of agriculture. It’s called precision agriculture, and it relies on space-age technology that set the terms of any debate over farms and farm policy.

The basic technology is the Global Positioning System (GPS), which guides the movement of farm equipment, with or without a farmer aboard. Then there’s “variable rate technology,” which measures moisture, acidity and nitrate content and tells other machines where to water and where to add fertilizers and other chemicals.

There’s much more to this, as described in a fine recent article in Foreign Affairs Magazine by Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. For anyone with a traditional view of Midwestern farming, the technology involved is mind-blowing. But so is the impact all this is having on average farm sizes, on the debate over mega-farming, on the Midwest’s ability to feed a growing global population, and on whether these higher yields can be reached without further damage to the environment.

Most noise on big farming comes from city pundits who’ve never been on a real farm in their lives. Their message is that big farming is evil, a sort of factory farming dominated by corporations spreading poisons into land and rivers. The real future, they say, belongs to small-scale niche farms producing organic crops for local markets.

It’s not going to happen. Small local and specialty farms, selling to restaurants and farmers’ markets, are indeed growing in number. But mega-farms, of 2,000 acres or more, are growing faster and getting bigger, for two crucial reasons:
  • Only these farms have the economy of scale to achieve the yields necessary to feed the world. With world population expected to grow to 8 billion or more, and with climate change cutting into farmland worldwide, these big super-productive farms are literally the barrier to famine.
  • Ever since John Deere invented his plow, technology has enabled individual farmers to farm ever bigger spreads. For decades, farm sizes have doubled every generation. Satellite-driven technology is the latest wrinkle, and a big one, in this march of technology. In the near future, farmers may guide their equipment from a console in their kitchens. There may literally be no limit to the size of the average family farm.
Yes, most of these farms are family farms. A prime example of what’s going on is Clay Mitchell, a young fifth-generation farmer who farms 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans in northeastern Iowa. Mitchell graduated in biomedical engineering from Harvard, then returned to the farm to practice what he calls “conservation-based farming.” He probably represents the future of farming.

Mitchell works with John Deere and other companies to test and apply the latest equipment. The result is precision cultivation, enabling him to apply fertilizers at different rates across a field, test and supply (or withhold) nutrients, with tractor-mounted sensors responding to GPS signals and adjusting automatically. The Lowenberg-DeBoer article provides more information on this technology.

This is mega-farming, for sure. But it should be noted that Mitchell produces yields 20 to 30 percent greater yields than his neighbors while saving 30 to 40 percent on fertilizer costs. Instead of slinging chemicals across his fields, he uses technology to put them only where they’ll do the most good. He practices no-till agriculture and works hard to prevent soil runoffs into rivers.

In other words, he’s doing well by doing good. This technology is expensive, but Lowenberg-DeBoer estimates that 40 percent of farm chemicals in the US already are applied through GPS guidance. As in Mitchell’s case, such methods increase profits, which enables farmers to buy ever more sophisticated technology. It also enables them to buy more farmland, increasing individual spreads, making this technology cost-effective.

All this undercuts the arguments against big farming. But it also undercuts the opposition from far too many farmers to environmentally sustainable agriculture.

Farm pollution is a huge issue: most of the lakes and streams in southwestern Minnesota, for instance, are not fit for swimming or fishing, and this pollution flows down the Mississippi to stifle life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton wants enforcement of a rule requiring 50-foot vegetative buffers along streams and lakes, but farmers there say it would take too much cropland out of production. In Iowa, the state’s largest water utility has sued three rural counties to keep nitrates from flowing into the Raccoon River, source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans. Farm leaders say the utility is too “confrontational” and wants a voluntary approach. Presumably, if voluntary approaches worked, the Des Moines Water Works wouldn’t have filed suit.

Outside the Farm Bureau, farmers don’t have many defenders here. Too many farmers plant every square inch, leaving no room for buffers. Others used tiling to drain water, which speeds pollutants directly into rivers. A typical farmer is happy to take government money in farm supports, but doesn’t want the government or other outsiders telling him how to farm.

There are some socially-conscious farmers like Mitchell. But most won’t take action unless forced to, by government mandate or court order.

Happily, it’s a problem that may solve itself. As farmers are forced to change methods or take land out of production, they’ll find that the technology pioneered by Mitchell will enable them to more than make up their losses, cut their costs and increase their profits.

No matter what the foodies think, big farming isn’t going to go away. Nor should it. But increased satellite-driven automation should enable them to keep on feeding the world without poisoning the folks downstream. 


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


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