A Smart Grid for Agriculture

Relinking farmers to amplify impact.

The US food and agricultural system is a network- a vast, interconnected web of farmers, eaters, scientists, food and consumer advocates, policymakers, and companies that support (or often “support”) the production, distribution, and sale of food. Flow of information in the network drives change, whether it’s information on changing costs, consumer tastes, or environmental impact. Unfortunately, recent food movements have unintentionally created and reinforced disconnects in the network, which has slowed the process of evolution in the food system.

State of the A(gricultural)rt

During Ag 2.0 (approximately WWI through the mid-1990s), the flow of information in the agricultural sector was fairly linear. The majority of consumer information flowed through one of three channels; Industry, Government and Academia, or Ag journalism, where in each channel it mixed and mingled with new information (and was framed in a new way) before being passed on to farmers.

Information from Industry would come to farmers through local retailers, imbedded in new products and sales contracts, and through government policies that were guided by agricultural input manufacturers. The companies that provide farmers with what they need to do their jobs; machinery, seeds, fertilizers, even insurance, and the companies that purchase the farmers’ raw produce, have significant control over information in agriculture, more than anything because these companies have personal relationships with farmers that have spanned decades (and sometimes centuries).

Information from Government and Academia has, since the conception of the Land Grant system, flowed primarily through the local agricultural extension agent. These are the local heroes appointed to deliver the agricultural science that the government sponsers to the farmers who can use it. Historically, the land grant system was admired around the world for being highly effective, and has been a major driver behind the US’s leadership in agricultural production.

Ag Journalism should (and has in the past) been the most direct and unbiased way for farmers to access consumer information, and many of the most widely-read agricultural publications are regional, grassroots operations, written by farmers, for farmers. These publications should be the megaphones that identify what’s working and what’s not in the agricultural sector, trumpeting the success of the former and publicizing the failures and debating alternatives in response to the latter.

Farmers and ranchers were, throughout Ag 2.0, a highly connected network, using national trade shows, regional conferences, cooperative meetings, and 5am stops at the coffee shops to exchange ideas, discuss new products, and debate the drawbacks and benefits of best practices. The network was robust with one overarching goal driving the entire system; increase yields or bust.

Information and Ag 3.0

Information flow in today’s Ag 3.0 has changed dramatically. New goals have been introduced and schisms have been created, and if we want to make any unified progress towards a more mindful food system, this is the place to start.

The low cost of disseminating information on the internet has been the greatest boon to the two new movements in food; the organic movement and the local movement. The distinction here is a result of the two movements having generally different goals. The focus of the organic movement is primarily health; organic consumers seem to be fine with simply replacing the food in our existing with organic options (see Chipotle, Whole Foods). The local movement, perhaps a more distilled subset of organic, idealizes a more holistic approach to food and is focused on a complete reworking of the food system (see CSAs, urban farming). The internet has facilitated the growth of communities around these ideas and has put its members in touch with the resources they need to carry out the ideas, converting existing farmers and inspiring new ones.

With the development of these groups, the information flow has changed. Consumer information around conventional, organic, and local foods is valued and sought out differently by the different channels, which impacts what information reaches which farmers.

Apologies for my terrible art skills.

The Industry that carried over from Ag 2.0 has split into two groups; conventional industry and organic industry. These are still two very powerful groups who, despite popular opinion, operate in pretty similar ways. The companies that supply machinery, seed, and fertilizer to organic farmers is not dissimilar from the conventional companies, nor are the food companies who buy raw organic produce and ingredients so different from conventional food companies. Despite the similarities, these parallel industries have different views of the market and consumer sentiment, and the information that passes through them to farmers reflects that.

Government and Academic sources are, by and large, concerned primarily with conventional agriculture, secondarily with organic, and only minimally with local. Most USDA research and programs cater directly to growers in the conventional space, and though there have been efforts to support organic agriculture, it does not actively encourage conversion. In short, if you are a grower actively seeking to go organic, the USDA has resources you can access, but no USDA inspector is going to come to your door and recommend a change.

Publications and journalism have been the true divergent point in the agricultural information system. The internet has lowered the barrier of entry for journalism to zero and given publications with very narrow focuses access to an attentive national audience, effectively parsing out the “Ag Publication” space into conventional publications, organic publications, and a multiplicity of regional, local, and even hyper-local publications. The rise in available information is exponential, but it no longer arrives in farmers’ mailboxes in the coop newsletter. It’s spread like Easter eggs in hundreds of disparate ag publications on the internet, and in my experience, the thing that farmers (be they conventional, organic, or local) don’t have is time to do the research.

The Schism

The once advanced, interconnected network of farmers that Lincoln called “the backbone of America” has become disconnected. As a result, the three groups of farmers exist, essentially, in information echo chambers. Conventional farmers receive information through Industry, Government and Academia, and Ag Publications, all curated to reinforce their existing positions and help them continue striving towards the goal of increasing yields. Organic farmers live in a similar space, but with their information flowing from Organic Industry and Organic Publications encouraging them towards the goal of increasing organic yields. Local farmers are the most likely to get information directly from consumers or through local publications, but as opposed to the advanced networks that exist among conventional farmers and organic farmers at a national level, local farm networks are much smaller and less integrated.

Conventional farmers, organic farmers, and local farmers rarely, if ever, have the chance to discuss and debate how they run their operations. They have no unified space from which to access information, and the overall picture of the market is unavailable to everyone. More painfully, the groups are often pitted against each other in the media, and in my experience, growers tend to feel adversarial towards members of adjacent groups, because rather than seeing each other as potential collaborators and allies, their neighbors are portrayed as fringe radicals who want to tell them how to do their job. (I’ve found this to be true in all directions, conventional farmers think this about organic and local growers, but I’ve also heard local growers say this of “corporate organic” and “big industrial farmers” and organic farmers say it of “local yahoos.”) There are sentiments in all three groups that they are being victimized by the other two.

The reality is, there is not three groups. There is one group. Farmers.

Their specializations, however different they might seem, are minimal compared to the enormity of what they have in common. The greatest resource that is being wasted on American farms today is potential to collaborate.

So then how do we go about making the grid smarter? How do we make the farmer-to-farmer network stronger so that the 20-something local grower can benefit from the wisdom of a big conventional guy that’s been in the business for decades, the scaling organic operations can benefit from the innovations of the local grower, and the conventional grower can weigh the pros and cons of switching to organic with a fellow farmer. Bridging the gap between farmers will make the whole network stronger, more innovative, and more nimble in response to change.

Here are a couple ways I think we can enhance the network:

1. Acknowledge that existing farmers must be part of the solution.

This is a surprisingly controversial goal, but the strength of the network depends on it. If we want a more mindful and sustainable food system, failing to capitalize on the knowledge and experience of conventional farmers would be a grave error.

2. Create ag media that’s accessible to all producers.

We’ve got to stop pitting farmers against farmers. One way to avoid this is encourage more media that has meaningful information for all farmers. I’m not saying the information shouldn’t be controversial, all the better if it is, it just has to, in one way or another, speak to all three groups. No conventional farmers are reading Modern Farmer, no local farmers are sending away for issues of Top Producer (the chances that these two groups have ever even heard of these publications is unlikely). Having read the same article about alternative fertilizers or cost sharing for drone technology could be a step towards meaningful, schism-bridging conversation. This is what we need to improve information flow within the system. By sending consumer information that farmers need to make effective decisions through fewer channels, spin by outside interests can be minimized and strain between groups of farmers can be reduced. This kind of ag media could also drive in-person meetings, conferences, trade shows, and the like, bringing really diverse groups of farmers into the same room.

3. Incentivize evolution by investing in basic research, creating avenues for collaboration and rewarding incremental progress.

There are any number of ways policymakers could create incentives in this network, from prize programs to tax-breaks and subsidies for incremental achievement. Much of this starts with basic research, USDA research funding has remained unchanged over the past 30 years (so with inflation, it has effectively declined), and the ag industry has captured much of the land grant system, effectively dictating the research agenda. An increase in funding for research complemented by an incentive program for adoption and more resources towards collaboration could have a tremendous impact on US agriculture. This recommendation is, unfortunately, really unlikely to come to fruition.

Being mindful food and agriculture advocates means acknowledging that evolution is more resilient than revolution, and that grassroots approaches are a more effective way to address complex systems then top-down dictation. Empowering farmers to work together regardless of what fertilizer they use, who they sell to, or how many acres they farm will surely go a lot farther towards radical change in the food system than grand national policies.