Average is Over in farming

While Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Alice Waters continue to argue that we need to turn back the clock on technology in agriculture, much of the world is moving in a quite different direction.

Via Tyler Cowen, an excerpt from Missouri farmer Blake Hurst:

Most combines traveling across fields in the Midwest this fall had a GPS receiver located in the front of the cab. Although agriculture has been experimenting with this technology for a decade or so, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology. For several years, farmers have had the ability to map yields with global positioning data. Using that information, firms can design “prescriptions” for the farmer, who uses the “scrips” to apply seed and fertilizer in varying amounts across the field. Where the yield maps show soil with a lower yield potential, the prescription calls for fewer seeds and less fertilizer. This use of an individual farmer’s data to design a different program for each square meter in a field spanning hundreds of acres could replace a farmer’s decades of experience with satellites and algorithms. What we have gained in efficiency and by avoiding the overuse of scarce and potentially environmentally damaging inputs, we may be losing in the connections of the farm family to the ancestral place. Precision technology will allow managers to cover more acres more accurately and will likely lead to increasing size and consolidation of farms.

The advantages of cheap and ubiquitous drones to monitor crop conditions and forecast yields will be too valuable to ignore.

Big data on farming will also likely affect the private-public partnership that brings us subsidized crop insurance. In the present system, insurance rates are set to maximize enrollment in the subsidized program, because encouraging participation by producers is seen as a public good. Insurance rates in marginal areas are lower than they would be if prices reflected only actuarial risk. But with access to the data about individual farms, insurance companies will be able to identify the least risky, most productive farms, which will likely buy less costly private insurance. This will end the ability of the present crop insurance programs to spread risk and will increase costs for farmers in more marginal areas, if the government doesn’t increase subsidies further.

If a farmer can manage one machine guiding itself across a field by satellite, applying inputs and measuring outputs, reporting by-the-minute data on yields, oil temperature, and a gazillion other data points, what is to stop that same farmer from managing dozens of machines on farms the size of New Hampshire? Tyler Cowen argues that we’re about to see an even wider disparity in incomes between the 10 to 15 percent of the population that can relate well to computers and the vast majority of us who will deliver services to the computer-savvy class. Farming may be one of the first industries to explore the validity of Cowen’s thesis. All of us involved in agriculture will soon have to decide whether we want to occupy the nostalgic niche providing artisanal beets and heritage pork to Cowen’s 10 percent, or whether we’ll roll the dice on surviving the transition to a data-driven agriculture. Farming will be more efficient, more environmentally responsible, and easier to regulate and measure. But it won’t be the same.