Towards an Inclusive Food System

Recently, ☮ t♭, an awesome grower writing at invironment, pitched a micro-revolution in agriculture and food in response to Kimbal Musk’s TED talk. Here’s a different perspective- from a small-farm kid from Wyoming who’s been launched into the high-stakes world of California agriculture.

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“On Wednesdays, we eat local.”

Though coming from a place of phenomenally good intentions, an awful lot of the current food movement is exclusive. Either as a result of price (currently eating a $9 bowl of locally-sourced soup) or availability (in Wyoming, eating local 9 months of the year would involve bison and bowls of snow exclusively), “localism” would leave a lot of people hungry. Though I love the idea of everyone having a personal relationship with the local farmer who provides their food, for too many, it’s simply not possible.

Aside from eaters, a lot of growers are also excluded from the local movement. It comes straight from the movement’s vision, which I would describe like this.

“To reach a critical mass of local eaters/growers, such that consumers would move completely away from eating the products of large, corporate agriculture.” In this ideal, the land that once grew thousands of acres of mono-culture crops would be parceled off to recent Oberlin graduates in 200 acre bundles to start their organic coffee-cured, hand-raised chicken prosciutto operations. There would be no more McDonalds or Wal-Mart or Monsanto, just farmers markets and local coffee shops and “the guy with the cows who gives us fertilizer.”

It’s a beautifully pastoral ideal, but it has a lot of enemies, and not just the McDonalds’ and Wal-Mart’s of the world. The 3,000 acre lettuce farmer in Salinas, CA is also an enemy. And the 10,000 acre cattle rancher in Wyoming. And the 1,000 acre apple grower in Ohio. They’ve been growing food their whole lives in the best way they know how. They’re fairly well-educated and 57 years old on average. Their extraordinarily experienced and still attend trade shows, subscribe to industry publications, and visit with local extension agents to stay abreast of the newest technologies and the most advanced methods. Farming isn’t a job for them, it’s a part of their identity, their inheritance and their legacy.

Our ideal labels these farmers “corporate farms” or “factory farms” because of the size of their operations, the inputs they use, and who their customers are. It vilifies them without giving them a chance to be understood or respond. It excludes them from our idealized future. How can we feel good about an ideal food system that excludes so many?

Farmers are engineers.

A tremendous amount of growing food is guided exclusively by intuition and experience. In AgTech, we hate to admit that, because intuition and experience can’t be reduced to an algorithm or be meaningfully imitated by a machine (even the tech skills of NASA could not replace the farming skills of a single astro-grower). Most of the food in your local grocery store is there because sometime, somewhere, a farmer made a decision, and then another, and another, and those decisions were the mechanism by which a bag of seed and a few basic inputs were transformed into safe, nourishing food. As of now, technology is incapable of accomplishing that alone. (Though we are getting there.)

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Yogi Berra

We’ve managed to eliminate the need for an enormous amount of jobs in the last 10,000 years, from weavers and lamplighters to developers at MySpace, but we’ve yet to eliminate the need for people in our agricultural system. Growing food continues to require skills that are best learned directly from the source, passed down from farmer to farmer (farming involves tacit knowledge, and there’s a lot of cool theories around its passage).

And despite the high level of experience needed to be a successful grower, it also requires flexibility, an openness to new technologies that could improve their efficiency and preserve resources. My interactions with our growers has always been one characterized by excitement to hear about new technology but (often severe) cautiousness about adopting them without evidence of solid results. Farmers want to see the science, but in my experience once they’ve seen it, they’re willing to make the investment, both in terms of time, money, and skills. Successful farmers in the US are already engineers, already attuned to technological advanced, and they are acutely aware that one wrong move, one failure to adopt a new technology, could put them out of business.

So why not medium farms?

If we are to learn any lesson from the current political climate in the US, it’s that radicalism in either direction is detrimental to the well-being of the system. Expecting that the 7 billion people (and 9 billion by 2050) will be fed by urban plots and $10,000 mini-farms will lead to just as many negative consequences as depending on just a few corporations to provide all our food (the latter leading to over-consumption, the former leads to under-consumption). That alone is a good reason why we shouldn’t be alienating and vilifying medium-sized farmers (the 2,000 acre vegetable operation or the 10,000 acre family ranch), particularly when converting them to our cause is the most likely road to a sustainable food system.

If we sell a bill of goods that excludes our existing family farms (whether we like to acknowledge it or not, most farms that would be classified as “corporate” or “factory” are still privately owned and operated by a single family) that were called by our founding fathers “the backbone of America”, we’re never going to succeed. If there’s one group of people who are going to dig their heels in on principle literally unto death (or at least misery), it’s traditional American farmers.

Fighting to return to an old food system at this point is, quite frankly, maudlin and sentimental. There is no going back, we must move forward. So rather than bidding on mutually assured destruction (when sustainability crusaders battle American agriculture, nobody wins), why don’t we work harder to create the tools to rehabilitate the mid-size family farms that are currently feeding America and help them find a path to a sustainable future. We should be spending our time understanding the challenges and incentives faced by mid-sized farms, and working to create solutions that work for them economically as well as environmentally. Rather than asking our farmers (and our food system) to be shackled to the past, why don’t we craft technologies to help them reach those same ends and help them gain the skills they need to carry on the legacy that they and their ancestors have worked so hard to create.

Communicating Technologies

At the end of the day, the language of the sustainable food movement falls on deaf ears in the agricultural community. The two groups have different visions, different goals, and very different strategies. But usually we assume that when our ideas aren’t translating, if we just yell them louder, the other side will eventually (magically?) understand. It’s not going to happen, because that’s not how language works (after 7 years of learning french, I can attest). We don’t need to yell louder, we need a translator. We need someone who can explain the goals of sustainability in the language of farmers, the language of yield, cost, and results.

Data is an ideal translator. If you’re a competitive, mid-sized farmer in the US today, you are already collecting massive amounts of data, more often than not in a pocket-sized legal pad (it’s easy to forget that the word “data” doesn’t only refer to 0’s and 1's). Growers keep track of temperature, soil moisture, pest conditions, and countless other observations when they’re in the field to determine everything from when to turn on an irrigation pump to what seeds to plant next year. An experienced farmer can flip through pages and pages of these data points and make decisions. Good farmers don’t walk out into the field, kick the dirt, and make a guess, they collect every possible piece of available information, informed by years and years of practice, consider alternatives, and proceed with caution.

As a result, any technology that could deliver more precise, more timely data to a farmer without requiring them to collect hundreds of samples or spend hours in the field with a soil auger would allow the farmer to radically improve their decision-making.

More importantly, data is the quickest avenue to broad adoption of sustainable technologies. The biggest challenge to marketing any solution in the agricultural sector is resistance to change. This resistance is not political or psychological or indicative of ill will, it’s purely practical. Margins are paper thin in agriculture, and the difference between making enough to pay the bills and falling into debt is often one freak hail storm or one pest outbreak. Spending even $500 extra a year on organic fertilizer or a weather station is a serious risk. Even when new technologies are competitively priced, there is inherent risk when they haven’t been extensively tested, and for most mid-sized farmers, even a 10% decline in yield could be catastrophic. This goes for new fertilizer and pesticides, hardware, tractors, seed varieties and even management practices like no-till and growing cover crops.

On top of the risks, farmers don’t have the flexibility enjoyed by other businesses. If I want to try a new marketing software, I can download the free trial and use it for a month. If it doesn’t work out, I let the trial expire, losing nothing but a little opportunity cost. Farmers need a whole season to test a new technology, but one bad season could put them out of business. So there’s a chick-and-egg problem in AgTech, farmers can’t trust the technology because it hasn’t been tested, but farmers won’t test the technology because they can’t trust it.

Data gives us the chance to refine the science, reduce the risks, improve the possible payoff, and eventually, meaningfully translate the fact that sustainable farming practices are economically beneficial. In a near future where farmers consider data systems to be a reliable tool, the systems themselves can encourage growers to make meaningful changes under conditions that are economically practical to farmers. An advanced analytics system could look at soil conditions, scan input markets, and tell a farmer, “You usually use Name Brand Fossil Fuel Fertilizer on these acres, but given the current conditions on your farm, it’s likely that New Sustainable Organic Fertilizer will increase your yield at the same/a lower cost.”

Rather than hoping that angry shouts from the internet reach a farmer and change their mind, we could create a technology that farmers like and trust that will speak to them in a language they understand. Those are our options now; blog or build.

Experienced mid-sized growers are smart business people, resourceful scientists, and practical conservationists. Emotions and nostalgia for a pastoral past do not move them. But science, strong economics, and good will might. If we’re going to build a $100 billion food company, let it be one that creates a technology to speak to American farmers, not about them, at them, or around them. An internet for agriculture will be a technology that gives growers the tools they need to chart a unique, dynamic, and flexible coarse to sustainability. It would be collective, driven by data, and a leveler of the playing field amongst agricultural technologies that would give new, sustainable tech and ideas the same opportunity as entrenched conventional tech. It would enable a truly inclusive food system, inclusive of the big producers and the small producers, rich eaters and poor eaters. It would be by growers, for growers, in collaboration with eaters, translating our interests into their language.

Let’s build technology that speaks for us.