The primary reason we have so much cheap food in America? Agriculture has long enjoyed cheap Latin American labor, much of it illegal and often paid under the table or by a penurious 'piece work' rate. Almost no worker benefits -- health, dental, 401K -- are offered, further decreasing the cost of labor.
It has been agriculture's quiet little, whispered-only-behind-the-barn secret for decades.
But walling off the southern border and demonizing those who sneak across at the behest of the cattle ranches of Texas and Arizona to the apple orchards of Washington and Michigan is putting a stop to that production benefit. Harvesting on the cheap is becoming a much more expensive proposition.
Agriculture doesn't get to pass those added costs of doing business to the consumer, though. Farmers and ranchers sell commodities and the price they must take is whatever the going rate is when they bring their products to market. Labor costs doubled? Tough. Fertilizer prices skyrocketed? Too damn bad. The marketplace attitude about those increases? Eat it and beat it.
And that brutal business fact has played a large part in the declining number of dollars that sift their way to the bottom of the distribution cycle -- American agriculture.
A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service report, capping a five-year long decrease in farm income, said "inflation-adjusted net farm income this year "would be 49% below its highest level of $136.1 billion in 2013 and below its historical average across 2000-17 ($90 billion). Net farm income was a dismal $66.3 billion last year, trailing only 2016’s $61.5 billion as the lowest since 2006, when the commodity boom was taking root. Income was constrained in 2018 by the effect on prices of the trade war which helped create huge corn and soybean stockpiles."
Here is the dismal bottom line: farm income has dropped by half in just five years. Farmers are being urged by lenders to tighten their belts but for far too many, there are no more notches to find and the suspenders aren't holding up their end very well. A major distress call spelled out in 50 ft. tall, highlighted in red "SOS" letters is being issued, especially from our dairy states.
Those distress calls are being answered by universities like University of California-Davis and proponents of 'smart farms' like that school's Dr. David Slaughter. He's thinking years ahead of an industry, though, that likes to move very carefully. U.C. Davis has been spearheading the concept for more than 70 years and defines it as creating "the farm of the future that will develop new innovative smart machines, smart sensing of the environment, smart plants and smart farming methods and will lead the way forward for world food security and the environmental, economic and social sustainability of the food production system by the year 2050."
Dr. Slaughter says the school is one of the most uniquely qualified institutions for the development of smart farming. "We are one of the few colleges with direct access to all the tools we need -- biological and agricultural engineering, computer science, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) pursuits.
One of the most advanced smart farmers, Matt Foes of Illinois, talked about how agriculture manages scientific advancements on This Week in AgriBusiness. When asked about producers struggling with new technology, Foes said he "brings it on" only when there is a proven ROI.
"We can't make big decisions all at once" and "If Edison only had one shot at the light bulb, we'd still have candles" were two comments he made when pressed about how he and other farmers look at high tech issues. In other words, they move cautiously but they're not afraid of failure.
Of course, the recent financial woes of American agriculture dictate that caution be the watchword. Even more than ever in the long history of this most penurious industry, the funds for progress will be held in a very tight fist. As the old saying goes. nickels will be spent like manhole covers.
With the loss of manpower, the 'spend' will have to be made quickly, regardless of the financial situation. One of the easiest first steps might be co-robotics, putting robots in the field with humans, both working together to speed harvest. In an example given by Slaughter, those co-robots are "autonomous robot partners that work with humans to harvest strawberries."
Developing these Star Trekian field hands, though, is an expensive and long-term project, often led by large farming companies with deeper pockets. Seeing the need to replace labor done by harder-to-find field hands, they're becoming investors in technology that might lead to next-generation farm equipment. One of those investors is Florida strawberry grower Wish Farm's Gary Wishnatzki who compares the technology to self-driving cars. “We don’t have to be perfect, just better than the humans," said the co-founder of Croo Robotics, "and humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it.” He said one of his strawberry-picking robot harvesters can potentially pick a 25-acre field in just three days and replace a crew of about 30 farm workers.
Robots are changing the look and feel of apple orchards, too. Slaughter said robotic picking trials in Washington's Yakima Valley are being successfully done but with a whole new look for the trees. "They have a very narrow canopy - just a foot thick -- to allow the robots to find and pick the apples."
Slaughter is thinking beyond mechanized field hands. Talking about the advancements that might come from IoT, the Internet of Things, he said the biggest limitation today is the lack of good cell phone reception in many rural areas, calling it a roadblock to the future advancement that American agriculture needs to be competitive. With better reception, for instance, irrigation practices can be greatly improved. He said sensors that monitor water needs could be placed on trees and automatically signal when a single tree needs water. "Instead of watering an entire orchard," he said, "each tree could be watered as needed."
It's a concept promoted by eager startups like a company called Particle that talks about precision farming, defined as the ability to "Monitor crop development remotely with intelligent smart meters that are connected to the Internet."
The successful farm of the future looks like a very high tech business propelled by serious investments in time, money and science. Slaughter emphasized the importance of more people pursuing a STEM education, something Barack Obama called for four years ago when he asked for an increased emphasis on those academic pursuits, saying, "[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world."
Slaughter underlines the necessity to remain a technologically advanced nation of farmers. "We have to be advanced," he said, noting that the decades old GPS-driven self-steering tractors were just the start of smarter farming. The future might see gene-edited crops to better withstand changing climate conditions spurred along by rapid, in-field phenotyping systems with high-tech cameras that create three-dimensional, virtual models of each plant as it grows in the field, advances in pure (not co-robotic) robotic planting, crop management and harvesting.
He has seen the future and it is very different than the present. It mandates a new kind of farmer, one that is at ease with the highest of high tech solutions that promise to make agriculture even more ecologically sound than it is today. It won't be your grandfather's farm, he won't even recognize it, but it will be smarter, more efficient and (by necessity) bigger.