Farming and the Jetsons

In the early sixties, “The Jetsons” entertained us with a cartoon version of what the future would look like. Set in 2062 (produced in 1962), George Jetson and his family zipped around in space cars, ate some kind of instant, reconstituted food, and had robots that did most routine tasks. George’s work week was an hour a day, two days a week. Jane Jetson was a stay-at-home-mom whose main task seemed be be shopping and directing the home’s robotic servants. Life in 2062, according to Hanna-Barbera, “The Jetsons’s” producer, is going to be leisurely and worry-free.

The latest issue of “Farm Journal” and their new web site <farmofthefuture.net> focuses on the future of agriculture. Some of the ideas being presented sound a lot like “The Jetsons.” Tractors working in fields all by themselves, robots milking and feeding cows. Tractors and combines diagnosing their own electrical and mechanical malfunctions and 3-D printers which print parts in the farm shop. Drones monitoring crops and microchips in beef cattle diagnosing health problems and transmitting the information to the veterinarian for treatment.

Some of these predictions are not predictions at all. Already tractors steer themselves. Combines and sprayers have monitors that keep track of all kinds of information. Some even contact the service department when they break down. 3-D printers are creating objects and microchips identify individual animals so computers can keep track of each one’s health, growth and origin. Some dairies already use robots to milk and feed their cows and the cows seem to like it.

The futuristic developments described by the folks at “Farm Journal” require Jetson-like technology. Data will be collected by all kinds of sensors and computer chips. Mobile communication devices like cell phones and tablet computers, or maybe even wrist watch sized computers will collect information and transmit the data to the farm’s computer. Mundane and unpleasant repetitive tasks will be taken over by robots run from the office.

The farmer of the future, according to the “Journal,” will not have to get their boots muddy. The farm manager of the future may never go outside.  He or she will spend their days at a desk, studying a computer screen. The office, may even be in another state.

All of these marvelous new possibilities are dependent on capital. Increasing use of high tech solutions to everyday problems will cost money. Just as moving from horse powered equipment to tractors allowed the farms of the mid-1900s to grow from a few hundred acres to a few thousand, these new technologies will allow farms to grow from a few thousand acres to whole townships and counties. They will not only allow farms to grow, they will require that farms grow to generate enough capital to pay for the technology being used.

Farmers may be freed from the tediousness of driving back and forth over a field numerous times every season, but when will they do their thinking? How will they know where the foxes live? Will they forget the smell of mint in the hay meadow? Will they be able to tell the difference between a marsh hawk and a Swainson’s hawk? Will robotic tractors be programmed to stop and shoo a spotted fawn or baby bunnies out of the path of the cultivator? Will the farm manager’s computer puff out the earthy smell of freshly turned soil or the sweet smell of freshly cut clover?

I admit to being a bit of a Luddite. I worry that with “labor saving” technology will mean fewer opportunities for new farmers who aren’t well connected and without big bank accounts. I am concerned that larger and larger farms will mean smaller and smaller communities. I envision distant investors owning farms and dictating how food is grown and distributed with an eye to return on investment first and the health of the land, the animals and the people as a secondary consideration.

I have been around long enough to know that much of these predictions have about as much credibility as an episode of “The Jetsons.” I remember the “experts” in the 1970s who predicted that in the twenty-first century, soil would not really be necessary except as a medium to hold up the plants growing there. Their prediction was that all the nutrients a plant needed would be supplied by an agricultural chemical company. Soil, plant and animal scientists now know that things are far more complex than that. They know that the organisms above and below the ground are interconnected and intereacting systems. The soil in our fields does far more than holding plants in place.

I also notice that much of the technology on the farm of the future is dependent on connecting to the farm computer wirelessly. Those innovations are not likely to be implemented on our farm soon.

We can’t yet make or receive a cell phone call from our house.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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