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Small Farm Tech: Food's Past and Future at Work


By Daniel Matthews

It’s easy to think of the small farm as a bastion of The Way Things Used to Be. And it’s comforting. But the reality of small, organic farms is that they are constantly seeking new ways to do more with technology. They’re seeking to increase production, build advanced networks with other farmers, and improve their reach to the consumer.

Population and food production

By 2050, the world’s population will hit 9.6 billion. Small farms will need to produce more food, even as climate change and evolving pests make this harder.

In places such as Africa — a continent with 54 nations, so large it can fit the U.S., China, India, Europe and Japan within its borders — small family farms grow more than 90 percent of all crops. Yet these farms are beset with production issues, including viruses spread by whiteflies. Empowering African farmers with new technologies to increase production is essential.

The genetically modified (GM) seed producer, Monsanto, could provide African farmers with genetically-altered seeds to grow plants that resist viruses. But this would be the equivalent of giving them a fish instead of teaching them how to catch it. And then charging them for more fish.

The farmers would not be able to maintain their own collections of virus-resistant seeds. They would need to buy them from Monsanto, effectively eliminating self-sustainability in African farming culture. And, only four countries in Africa even allow commercial farmers to plant GM crops.

Small farms in Tanzania have had more success employing organic farming practices: strategies such as crop rotation and planting a more diverse array of crops.

Beyond the most basic organic practices, America’s small farms can be the starting-point for implementing new technological solutions that small farms worldwide can employ. We’ve got the market for innovation. Our organic farms are intensely invested in remaining organic -- and competing with monoculture. The solutions our farms find now will inform sustainability around the world as the population, and the temperature, rises.

Production tech

Ample production starts with the soil. In order to analyze soil-quality/composition and determine soil water content, farmers can use Ground Penetrating Radar. GPR leaves the surface and subsurface untouched and undamaged. The farmer doesn’t have to do any digging, which cuts down on time, labor, and erosion. GPR uses ultra-wide spectrum radio frequency energy pulses, which bounce back to an antenna and show up as an image on the operator interface.

Once the farmer determines where it’s best to plant, work begins on cultivating a successful organic crop. Plowing causes soil compaction, water problems and erosion, and it also uses fossil fuels — which, given the amount of farming we do worldwide -- is problematic. The answer is no-till farming. To big ag, no-till means spraying herbicides to kill weeds and using specialized seeding equipment to plant without disturbing the soil. But this doesn’t make for organic produce.

Organic no-till involves cover crops: crops that kill the weeds but allow the primary crop to grow. A cover crop roller (pictured above) rolls out a cover crop mat and facilitates planting at the same time. Farmers who love to tinker can build their own.

No-till cuts down quite a bit on labor, compared with plowing rows. Oregon State University offers a cover crop calculator that also figures how much organic fertilizer the farmer needs, in addition to calculating nitrogen mineralization.

From AgSquared comes an app to help farmers with production. Whereas a big farm has the cash to employ multiple hands, the small farmer may be overwhelmed. AgSquared helps the farmer plan planting schedule, calculate seed orders, map field layouts, stay on track with cultivation, and keep detailed records.

The small farmer who can afford it might pick up an autonomous tractor, without having to worry about government regulations to the contrary. Self-driving tractors cut down on labor and facilitate precise use of space.

Because of the cost, and because plenty of small farms don’t need a full-sized one, autonomous tractors haven’t caught on with small farmers. What has caught on is the website Farm Hack, a community dedicated to sharing alternative tech solutions, open-sourced by community members. These solutions include the culticycle, a pedal-powered tractor built from recycled parts. It boasts no fossil fuel usage, less soil compaction, low price, and the added benefit of being an exercise machine.

Post-Production tech

In terms of networking, marketing, and selling, there are a ton of resources for organic farms. One primary example is LocalOrbit. This site claims to, “Support the innovative business models and regional diversity that are hallmarks of the New Food Economy.” Here, the internet is the technology. LocalOrbit is a network harnessing the internet, allowing farms to sell in multiple marketplaces from one account. It also supports farms with a built-in suite of back-end tools for marketing products, tracking customers, updating and monitoring inventory, and organizing delivery.

Other important apps include Square, the mobile card-payment system, which makes selling at farmer’s markets so much easier. To notify loyal customers about the upcoming market, the farmer can use the FarmFan app. FarmFan automatically texts participating customers an hour before market as a reminder. According to FarmFan, text messages have a, “97% open-rate within 3 minutes of sending,” and are incredibly effective. Once the customer checks in at the market they can receive loyalty rewards.

New economies

The sharing economy and the new food economy, when we get to the root of it, are the same thing. Both represent a modern modification of pre-industrialized work. Both take advantage of evolving tech to facilitate independent transmission of ideas and technologies peer-to-peer. And, both rely on cooperation, a proactive consideration for sustaining local economies and cultures.

Hopefully, with increased emphasis on sharing ideas and technologies, we’ll be able to feed those in the world who aren’t getting enough to eat as the future unfolds.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/DIVatUSAID 2) Flickr/NRCS Oregon 3) Flickr/Agrilife Today

Daniel Matthews is a writer and musician from Boise, Idaho. Please find him on Twitter @danielmatthews0

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