What will the farm of tomorrow look like?
There’s certainly no end of opinions on offer when that question gets asked.
Will the average Prairie farm become a massive undertaking, measured in tens of thousands of acres, wired in every corner to harness the power of big data?
That’s certainly one possibility, and if history is any guide, many contend, it’s the likely outcome.
After all, farms have been getting bigger since the land was first broken, a trend that really picked up speed with the postwar era of mechanization, fertilization and chemistry.
In that world, which has been the dominant paradigm for North American agriculture for decades, bigger really has been better. It allows spreading fixed costs over more acres, lowering the overall cost structure and partially dodging the perennial challenge of finding enough labour by increasing equipment size.
Others contend there may be a better way, and just recently there’s been an inkling of what those future farms may look like.
First, there’s been the runaway success of the organic sector, and other similar sustainability-branded efforts, which reveals a substantial public appetite for something different when it comes to food.
You don’t have to agree with the folks making these purchase decisions, but it would be a mistake to not at least try to understand them. After all, they’re pretty interesting creatures, no matter how you slice it.
In a cheap-as-possible, lowest-common-denominator era, they’ve proven willing to open their wallets and pay more for a product that is, based on most analysis, near identical in functionality.
Secondly, there are the farmers who are trying something a bit different. This group includes, but is in no way limited to, organic producers. A helpful way to characterize them might be the farmers looking for a better way of growing crops that’s less on a wartime footing, mobilized against Mother Nature.
Examples of this include farmers sowing cover crops, intercropping and incorporating livestock into grain operations. In the case of the latter, that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the classic mixed farm, but may take the form of an operational arrangement with a nearby livestock producer.
Proponents of these strategies say they’re able to increase diversity, thus lowering their susceptibility to diseases and pests. In the case of intercropping, they say they’re able to harvest other benefits by also making better ‘spatial’ use of the land by planting crops that benefit each other, increasing yields and lowering costs.
Another interesting wrinkle is the explosion of high technology that’s starting to sweep across the agriculture sector. As one article in this issue notes, it’s now possible to plant, tend and harvest a crop without a single human foot setting in the field, as proven by researchers in the U.K.
The story does go on to note the experiment was exactly that — an experiment to see if it was possible. Farm-scale applications of this sort of approach are probably a few years away, but it’s on the horizon.
Closer to home SeedMaster inventor and entrepreneur Norbert Beaujot is touting his DOT system that does away with the tractor — and tractor operator — in a similar manner.
Both of these approaches share one common facet — they’re centred around smaller, lighter, more energy-efficient machinery. They’re the most radical departure in how to grow crops since horse teams were retired for tractors and raise the question whether, eventually, the big tractors we’re all so used to will be just as rare.
When it comes to agriculture innovation, it can be tough to pick winners and losers. Something that initially seems promising may not pan out over time, in real-world conditions.
One good example of this is winter-sown canola on the Prairies. A few years ago everyone was pretty excited about it and a few early trials were promising. Over time however, our harsh winters proved too much to reliably overwinter the plants, and it’s all but forgotten now.
This means anyone who claims, with any degree of certainty, that they know what the future farm will look like is likely blindly optimistic in their ability to predict.
Designing a new and better production system will take a lot of time and effort, and no single individual or organization is going to make it happen.
Instead, it’s going to be a process of building on the work of others. It’s going to involve many parties, public and private.
In the end, it’s probably going to look a lot like the early years of zero till where government and university researchers and extension personnel, farmers and farm equipment developers all played a role.
One can only hope Manitoba again is front and centre in this evolution, as it was with zero till.
That would truly be a made-in-Manitoba solution we could all be proud of.