Definitely Not Robots

Assistant Manager Danielle, trellising our cucumber plants.

Assistant Manager Danielle, trellising our cucumber plants.

Last Thursday afternoon, while the crew and I were hoeing the sweet potato patch, I couldn’t shake the feeling of obsoletion. Here we were, in 2016, using hand tools designed in the 1800s to weed our farm. I felt especially antiquated because earlier in the week I had seen an advertisement for the Robocrop weeder, a machine that users a camera and image analysis software to identify weeds, and then manipulates metal discs to destroy the weeds without harming the surrounding plants. When you combine this technology with the GPS auto-navigation that newer tractors offer, the human farmer becomes gratuitous in weed-control.  
 
Weeding is just one example of the automated seeding, transplanting, and harvesting systems that are rapidly changing both how farms grow food and how they employ humans. A recent article in The Economist titled “The Future of Agriculture” references a solar-powered robot that uses a camera to recognize ripe strawberries. Upon encountering a ripe berry, the robot severs the stem with a sharp blade, collects the berry in a basket, and eventually moves full baskets to a conveyor belt for packing.
 
As technology changes, so does the role of the farmer. Knowing how to hoe or pick a ripe strawberry becomes much less important than how to set-up and troubleshoot the machine performing the task. Farmers were always technicians, but our area of specialty is increasingly switching from that of maintaining plants to that of maintaining computerized systems.

And even modern outdoor farming seems anachronistic in light of new production techniques such as the food computers developed at MIT. Here, one simply purchases a growing chamber and selects from “food recipes.” Based on your selection of vegetable and the desired flavor profile, the computer automatically controls the light, nutrients, temperature, and humidity. Have the sun and rain become irrelevant as well?
 
Farmers are an endangered species – we were 27% of the labor force in 1920 and are less than 2% in 2012.  But do we really need farmers if we all have food computers? Are we then not all farmers?
 
I’m confused, honestly. What I do know for sure is that I love going to farmers’ markets and getting to talk with the people and families that enjoy our food. I love Tuesday CSA pick-up at the farm and the relationships I build there. I love harvesting vegetables that I know would never have existed if I hadn’t cared for them. And though I don’t ever like to admit it, I love encountering and overcoming obstacles and difficulties which ground me and help me appreciate the small successes in a day.
 
On the other hand, I would love not to worry each winter about whether I’ll find enough qualified workers to run the farm. I’d love not to have a backache after picking my way through 200’ of strawberries or beans.  And I’d love eating tomatoes in January if they had any flavor.
 
Obviously, I have more questions than answers. I’m just thankful to be supported by so many people who allow myself and my crew to spend our lives doing something we love, and who accept our varying degrees of imprecision and incalculability. In other words, our humanity.

FARMERS MARKET NEWS
The Braintree farmers’ market begins this Saturday in front of the town hall (1 JFK Memorial Drive) from 9am-1pm! We hope to see you there or at the Hingham Market!

Chas and Nicole picking strawberries - definitely not robots.  

Chas and Nicole picking strawberries - definitely not robots.
 

Adam using a wheel hoe to weed the farm's aisles. At least the pneumatic tire is almost a 20th century invention (1898!)

Adam using a wheel hoe to weed the farm's aisles. At least the pneumatic tire is almost a 20th century invention (1898!)