Friday, September 24, 2010

Inhabiting Paradise - 15

One more variation on the current theme of paradise is the utopia promised by technology, specifically, the technology wielded by the captains of agribusiness. Recently, I stumbled upon a very cool website, Paleo-Future, which looks back on forecasts for the future. One Paleo-Future entry included this 1961 illustration and text that originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, a feature called "Closer Than We Think":

Caption: Agriculture in the world of tomorrow will be so mechanized that farms will actually resemble factories. Crops and livestock will be raised on regular schedules under uniform and carefully controlled conditions.

"Sensors," those automatic control devices for today's wonder machines, will be adapted to the requirements of precision agriculture. They will take the place of human judgement in deciding and reacting to soil conditions, crop maturity, moisture levels, weather forecasting, feeding needs, etc. Bendix researcher W. E. Kock has reported that instruments to do this already exist or will soon be developed.

Paleo-Future reported a similar scenario laid out in a California magazine, Southland, which devoted its November 4, 1956 issue to "You and the Year 2000." An article by George Serviss, "Anyone for a Garchidrose?" depicts the beneficial effect of an H-bomb on farm crops:

Farmer Jones stepped to a small black instrument panel at the rear of the air-conditioned plastic "bubble" in which we sat, my wife seated beside me - I had brought her along to write the woman's angle of this interview with a Year 2000 farm family for "Atomic Life." We had just come up a ray-powered elevator from the family's spacious bomb-and-fungus-proofed, solar-conditioned subsurface quarters. We were surveying his fields.

Farmer Jones pressed a button marked "Activator." There was a slight hum and a cylinder rose in the field a few feet beyond the clear plastic wall. A door opened in the cylinder and a robot, closely resembling a 1956 man, stepped jerkily out into the field.

"I must apologize for my hired hand," Farmer Jones said lightly, "Since full parity prices have been removed from our crops, I haven't been able to afford a newer model. But, he has served me well. A couple of new tubes and a paint job will tide him over for another year or two."

Farmer Jones was now operating a small lever that projected from a squarish box that stood up from the floor. The lever seemed to swing around a 360-degree circle and, as I watched, I could see that this was the control for the robot. I turned back to the field to watch development. I'd already asked about the quality of his crops.

The robot moved swiftly now, under Farmer Jones' guidance. "Carrot, perhaps?" queried Farmer Jones. "Or a turnip; perhaps a tomato?" he asked, turning the robot this way and that in the rows that could be seen beyond the plastic. There was very little foliage to mark the rows, produce being grown these days for the edible roots and fruits with a minimum of green waste. Chlorophyll derivative sprays replaced greenery, as I had already observed in my extensive farm and garden writings.

Perhaps we should have a leaf or two of spinach, too," Farmer Jones commented, steering the robot on another course to a green section of the field into which the machine almost totally disappeared, so tall was the vegetation.

"I'll bring the man in now," Farmer Jones said, and guided the robot to a belt conveyor box which projected beyond the bubble. "Haven't been out in the fields since we were H-bombed in the last war," he said. He laughed ruefully, "Don't think it would be healthy," he said, "still 'hot'; but you'd be surprised what that bombing did for the soil. Things grow like crazy; and the robot doesn't mind a bit sowing the seeds and keeping the place up."

The impromptu harvest came tumbling into the bubble - through a radiation trap. Farmer Jones explained. "They're safe to handle now," he said, and pressed a "Deactivator" button that left the robot hired-hand standing at attention. The humming stopped.

The vegetable were all that Farmer Jones had previously boasted that they would be. Carrots three feet long. I took a sample nibble of one; cleaned and completely sanitized by passing through the radiation trap. It was delicious. So was the turnip, four feet in diameter and as tender as butter. I carved a chunk with my electronic pocket incisor and passed it to my wife who has always had a penchant for raw vegetables. She exclaimed with delight at its flavor....

Japan develops robotic suit to give farmer super-human strength

Visions of a robotic paradise on the farm are still with us, as evidenced by a Don Davis article published in Agweek, just this past summer:

RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Agriculture of the future will be “Star Trek” meets “Green Acres.”

Experts predict that within 25 years, little robots will roam fields zapping weeds, testing soil and turning plant genes on and off to fit the conditions, a bit like mechanical helpers on the starship Enterprise.

At the same time, some Americans will continue to feel a need to work the land and smell the soil while bouncing up and down on a tractor seat, as Oliver Wendell Douglas did on the farm comedy.

Farmers in recent years have embraced global positioning systems to better grow crops. They use computers and satellites better than many of the country’s biggest corporations. Dairy farmers are beginning to use robotic milking machines.

There is little argument about the future: Technology will continue to drive changes. What is to come excites Matt Hanson of the Dodge County, Wis., extension office, an expert in handling manure, a product farmers like to call “nutrients.”

“I get excited reading some of the research that is going on that is kind of unrelated to agriculture; it is related to robotics,” he said.

Hanson predicted that science soon will develop little robots that scan fields looking for weeds, for instance, “and spot-spray on individual weeds, kind of like those robot vacuums in homes or mowing yards.”

Those robots also will be able to analyze soils, Hanson added, “sending a message back to the producer via e-mail or cell phones or whatever technology we have in the future.”

Farm implement giant John Deere is working on the concept. “It is closer than we think,” Hanson said.

As for livestock, Hanson predicted that each lot of meat will be traceable back to an individual animal, so that an E. coli outbreak, for instance, need only lead to a small recall of bad product.

While there appears to be general agreement that technology will dominate agriculture, there is a difference of opinion.

“I think farms in general are going to get larger,” said Dick Wolkowski, senior soil scientist for the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. “I don’t think there is any question that to keep up economically, the 30-cow herd and running cash crops on a few acres just doesn’t cut it anymore. Farms are going to have to get larger. I am not saying factory farms, or anything like that. It will be family farms.”

Hanson disagreed with Wolkowski about the size of future farms. He predicted farms will not need to grow in size, just grow more per acre with “this technology that really helps us fine-tune our production techniques.”

Technology is automating work and turning farmers into computer operators, Hanson said, but many still like to smell the soil: “I enjoy getting on a tractor and doing some mindless field work.”
Climbing off a shiny new New Holland tractor at Farm Technology Days near River Falls, Gary Thoma of Neilsville, Wis., had doubts about the little guy.

“I don’t think it will survive,” he said of the 440-acre farm he and his brother work. “You can’t compete.”

Wolkowski said that combining technology with reduced-till farming can help produce more crops.

“The chisel plow will be out,” he said, replaced in a large part by equipment that allows farmers to make a single pass to plant crops, giving up plowing, disking, harrowing and other ground work.

For farmers not ready to go all the way to no-till, strip-tillage tools will mean farmers can work up soil in an 8-inch-wide band, then plant in that area, guided by satellites to keep seeds within about an inch of where they were intended. That would leave crop residue to protect the soil from erosion.

Regardless of the specifics, Jim Harsdorf said he sees one factor overshadowing all others: technology.

“Part of the United States’ success in any area is we are willing to look at new technology to solve old problems,” said the former Wisconsin state senator and state agriculture secretary. “The day we quit doing that is the day I don’t think we will keep our No. 1 status economically."

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