Seeds of change: Technology is revolutionizing farming; but the next generation must get onboard

Thomas Jefferson once said of farmers, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” It was assuredly difficult for him to think otherwise; in his time, roughly nine in 10 Americans were farmers. Today, barely one in 100 Americans “labor in the earth” — and it’s a number that’s only decreasing.

According to The United States Department of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in the United States is 57-years-old. One of those farmers is Dennis Larison, editor of Lancaster Farming. In his time behind the wheel of his tractor and at his newspaper, he’s seen pivots in Pennsylvania agriculture from multiple points, from the “pressures of suburbanization” to transform farmland into developments, to the adoption and adaptation of precision agriculture — or a greater focus on technology and science behind the face of food.

Indeed, technology is revolutionizing the way we produce our food. The future is now. Within the past decade, those in the fields have added GPS to their farm equipment, drones to detail overhead observations, and synthetic compounds that have, with some crops, more than doubled output. And we’re just entering a new era. Farm 2.0 is one where the landscape will realize tectonic shifts in technology, a world in which Michell Zappa of Business Insider envisions changes such as sensors providing hard data on every unit of crop and livestock, automation behind picking and harvesting, and even such far-flung ideas as vertical farming and in vitro meat. These adjustments aren’t simply necessary because of increasing population — they’re compounded by the fact that there’s less land and fewer people working it

Profits, pressure and an aging problem

However, the difficulty in growing and raising enough isn’t just about filling the stomachs of 12 million Pennsylvanians or the 7.3 billion people in the world. It’s also about replenishing bank accounts with something more than bird feed. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding calls those working in food and agriculture part of a “business without walls.” The Secretary noted that many of our food and agriculture workers operate on “razor-thin profit margins.” This is a problem because, he estimates, “we’ll be adding the equivalent of India” to our world population by 2050. However, in trying to feed the world, many in agribusiness view a down year as one in which they lose the farm; this is not a metaphor — it’s as real as rain.

Those down years are a coming thunderstorm. In a 2017 special edition on agriculture, USA Today estimated that farm income would decline by 8.7 percent this year. Several factors complicate this issue: first, post-recession investment is reacquainting itself with the risk involved in companies instead of sure-handed commodities; second, the global market has made food prices ultra-competitive; and third, many have reservations about the role tariffs and possible trade wars will play in our shared future of food, making them hesitant to bank on ecological estates.

But the pains aren’t just a bunch of numbers in a periodical. They apply to every hand in the field. Nick Isenberg, Agriculture & Natural Resources Instructor at Milton Hershey School, notes that “high input prices, high land prices, and low market prices” for their crops and products are challenges facing many in the field now. But “the biggest challenge will be getting younger folks interested in farming,” he says.

Statistics support Isenberg’s assumption: just 4 percent of farmers in our nation are under the age of 35. Penn State University agricultural education student Allison Emig is one of those farmers. She notes the challenges these young people in agriculture face are “numerous,” but that’s because we need to recalibrate ourselves around “education and awareness” of the field, because “agriculture isn’t going away.”

Philip Ackerman-Leist, Green Mountain College Professor and author of Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, also agrees. “The future of agriculture,” he says, “depends on its revitalization in education” and putting people — like Emig — “back on the farm.”

Two of those young people who have successfully transplanted themselves back to the farm are Brooks Miller and Anna Santini of North Mountain Pastures in Juniata Township, Perry County. When I interviewed them in 2010 for The Patriot-News, it was easy to uncover how little we know about our food. Brooks, a former NASA engineer, and Anna, who overcame food complications by studying them, wanted to change that. Kaj, their son (and then an animated toddler), has grown as quickly as his parents’ business. Indeed, their choice cuts of meat aren’t just being sold in a cooler anymore; they’re now one of the main features at farm-to-table restaurants like The Millworks in Harrisburg.

Sowing seeds for future farmers

But for every Brooks and Anna, how many others turn the other way from the farm? Overcoming that is Scott Sheely’s mission. The PA Department of Agriculture’s Special Assistant for Workforce Development has seen the future of farming, and he wants to be behind the wheel. He’s engaged a three-pronged approach to tackle the changing face of the farm: making agriculture economically feasible, improving the knowledge cluster (and employing more people like Isenberg to lead students in agriculture), and encouraging a pipeline of talent for the Brookses, Annas, and Allisons to place their boots on the ground in Farm 2.0.

Sheely shared a few examples of “institutions who are doing it right,” such as Carnegie Mellon, whose automated robots harvested fruit in Adams County orchards this year; Spring Grove students who grew 2,000 pounds of food for the York County Food Bank despite not having an FFA seed program (they’re seeking to be the 152nd of 500 school districts to have one in the Commonwealth); Lebanon-Lancaster IU #13 teaching science through agriculture; or SUNY Cobleskill, who is melding interests in technology and agriculture for what he calls the 30 most necessary jobs, which include farm hands, landscapers, conservationists, ag equipment service techs, veterinarian techs, and more.

“There are many scientists in our field who have to go to college,” Sheely says, “but we’ve got plenty of great jobs here where you don’t need to — and plenty more where one doesn’t have to touch a cow.”

“I don’t try to hide the idea that food and agriculture is hard work,” Secretary Redding adds, “but for some people, it will define them. Are you interested in health? Are you concerned with the future of our land? Do you want to find work filled with meaning?”

The Secretary highlighted one specific and influential story he received from a parent whose child, who has autism, attends Fox Chase Elementary, an inner-city Philadelphia school whose entire curriculum is wrapped around their working farm. The child never spoke before digging his hands into the soil. Yet, soon thereafter, he was home describing the chickens, cows and other livestock to his mother. “The mother had tears streaming from her face,” he notes. “Talk about the therapeutic value of the farm.”

“So,” I follow-up with Redding, “how do we approach this conversation? How do we change the way we see agriculture?”

“I begin most of my conversations at school with one simple question: ‘Who likes to eat?’” He laughs for a bit. “There’s never a hand that doesn’t stand tall in the air.”

The future of food involves changing some perspectives. It’s not simply relying on the 57-year-old farmer to supply the crops and livestock, or to turn over the keys of the tractor to their children. In fact, it involves changing the narrative. Part of that is portraying that agriculture isn’t for the “dumb kids;” there’s a rocket scientist in our backyard who is raising pigs proving otherwise. Agriculture isn’t so much about farms. It’s about the fields, the future, and the food. Most of all, it’s just as much about the chosen few who declared their Jeffersonian intentions and dug their “labor in the earth” as it is us.

Because agriculture isn’t going away.


Jake Miller is a freelance writer and history teacher based in Mechanicsburg. He is the father of a toddler son.

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