This little story in the Fresno Bee speaks volumes. It’s about a program at wee West Hills College called “Farm of the Future” that teaches students how to use the latest high-tech farming equipment. These students are in hot demand and are hired straight out of the program, because farm tech is advancing faster than the abilities of typical farmers to keep up with it.
“The jobs are there,” said Ted Sheely, who grows a wide range of crops on 8,000 acres near Huron. “We don’t have enough qualified people to run the equipment we have.” Increasingly, farmers are embracing new technology of the sort Velasquez is using because it brings greater efficiency to their operations. It can save money that years ago might have been spent needlessly on pesticides, fertilizer and water. “This technology doesn’t cost; it pays,” said Sheely, who loans equipment for students to use, including a $350,000 tractor that has auto steering and an on-board computer. The computer positions the tractor to micromanage applications of chemicals or other products without ripping out drip tape used for irrigation.
For now, the advanced technology is mostly used on the big farms that can afford it. But project out into the future a bit …… as this stuff becomes cheaper it will be standard on farms of any size. In addition to lowering the overall chemical and water use of American agriculture, it will mitigate some of the advantages of scale (read: agribusiness). It will reduce overhead and waste costs for small farmers.
Markets aren’t only for the rich. Certain kinds of information, however, convey advantages to those have the right data at the right time. Until recently, only the relatively wealthy had swift access to relevant market information. … University of California computer scientist Eric Brewer is convinced that low-cost access to agricultural prices could yield enormous payoffs. He cites an experiment in China that indicated that farmers could earn 60 percent more on their crops if they had access to telephones to learn the true prices in nearby urban markets. “The assumption of economics is that there’s basic information available about the state of the market,” Brewer says. “That may be true on Wall Street, but it’s not true in a rural village in China.” … Small farmers worldwide have traditionally been at the mercy of middlemen and victims of their own lack of timely information.
Now, Rheingold’s focus is on the huge and immediate benefits that basic information technology — i.e., mobile phones — could bring to rural farmers in developing countries. But the point holds true for rural farmers in the U.S. as well. One of the only ways to battle against sheer scale is flexibility — the ability to tailor what you offer to individual customers’ needs, to provide personalized, customized, timely service. This has allowed (some) independent stores to stay profitable in the face of Wal-Marty behemoths.
The same kind of service has been difficult for small farmers to offer. Typically, all farmers dump goods into huge markets, where middle-men scrape off huge profits before selling them to small-scale customers (supermarkets, restaurants, individual consumers). But information technology could change that. As urbanites are increasingly conscious of the food they eat, there’s a growing demand for sustainably grown, local food. These urbanites, and the restaurants and markets that serve them, could be directly hooked up with small farmers in rural areas. Thus are middle-men and massive added costs eliminated.
The point is: Technology holds great potential to change the fortunes of rural America in ways that environmentalists should celebrate and encourage. By doing so, greens could cross the increasingly toxi cultural divide in this country and form a mutually advantageous political coalition. Win-win and all that.
This is a trend we greens should keep our eyes on.