Every Sunday I pick up my basket of food from Hazelfield Farm. I’m a member of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, through which I invest in the farm each Winter and enjoy their crops all Spring and Summer. I get my food from Todd, who is the farmer who helped grow it. Throughout the Summer, I get updates about the famer’s family and how crops are doing. On social media, I can see pictures of fresh produce and new crops being planted. It feels simple and wholesome, being so connected the people growing the food I eat, but my experience isn’t the norm. And the vegetables I buy at the grocery store to augment my CSA hauls aren’t grown in the same way.
Despite what the farmer emoji on your phone might indicate, and contrary to my CSA farming experience, farming is, and always has been, among those leading the way in technology through each of the industrial revolutions.
Agriculture during the first industrial revolution
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people started to move away from farms and into cities, where new types of employment were becoming available. Among the notable inventions during this period were a reliable form of steam engines, transatlantic cable and mechanical sewing machines.
Farmers were not left out of this period of innovation. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, helping to automate the separating of cottonseed from the cotton fiber. This, combined with the inventions of the spinning jenny, which made finishing cotton easier, and the flying shuttle, an advanced kind of loom, revolutionized cotton growing and how it worked with the increasingly factory-based textile industry.
Agriculture during the second industrial revolution
The second industrial revolution is tied to such advances as telephones, light bulbs, diesel engines, airplanes, the Model T and the introduction of assembly lines. Advances in transportation did more than help move people. They also helped move crops, livestock and farming machinery, expanding markets and making farms more efficient. The expansion of the railroad during the second industrial revolution meant that, for the first time, Midwestern farms could transport goods to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Agriculture during the third industrial revolution
The third industrial revolution, which is sometimes called the digital revolution, saw technology advancing from mechanical and analog to digital. This technological revolution was one piece of how the agriculture industry could keep up with population growth, which more than doubled between 1960 and 2008, despite decreasing land availability.
Digital tools gave farmers the ability to record and analyze more data, in order to engage in precision farming. In 1994, farmers started using satellite technology to innovate farming practices, and the FDA granted the first approvals of foods produced through biotechnology. Agricultural technology experienced many advances during the third industrial revolution, allowing farmers to start using weed-and insect-resistant crops, genetically engineered crops and more advanced insecticides.
Agriculture during the fourth industrial revolution
|Attribution some rights reserved by Mauricio Lima|
As discussed in KnowledgeWorks’ latest forecast, “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” we are now at the start of the fourth industrial revolution, during which we are seeing advances in digital technology become embedded into day-to-day activities and business. For agriculture, this means big advances in precision farming, as indicated by John Deere’s recent acquisition of the agri-tech start-up Blue River Technology. Farmers can keep track of their crops’ progress via drones and care for plants with robotic sprayers.
“People assume that farmers don’t use technology,” said Saskatchewan-based farmer Kim Keller in an article for CBCNews. “In fact, farmers are often on the forefront of using technology, and we use a lot of technology in our day-to-day operations.”
The future of farming and technology
The reality is that farms like the one I support each week cannot feed our planet’s growing population without more support and, frankly, more of them. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that the world’s population is expected to grow by 30% between 2009 and 2050. They go on to say that “projections show that feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005/07 and 2050.” Around the world, farmers and technologists – not mutually exclusive categories – will be looking for ways to be more efficient, increase output and keep people fed.