This was a line that came up in a recent conversation with Craig Livingstone, one of our farmer customers, and it has lodged in my brain since.
My grandfather knew all sorts of things about my farm that I have never learned, primarily because he spent a lot of time observing. Farms are living things and they are constantly sending us signals about their health or lack of it. But over the last several decades, we farmers have increasingly ignored these signals in the name of progress and efficiency.
I think that the new technologies of the 4th Agricultural Revolution can help us to re-claim this skill of observing, and take our understanding of our farms to a new level.
One example of this; observing the presence of different weeds in our soils can help us to understand what is happening below ground. Some weeds indicate an acidic soil, others an alkaline soil, whilst others indicate a lack of certain nutrients. An observant farmer would note these natural signals and use them to inform varietal selection, rotation decisions and soil management approaches. In truth, this detailed observation rarely happens - weeds are something that you control, and control means kill, normally, if not always, through the application of a herbicide.
When it comes to pests in our fields, there are specified thresholds for each pest you might encounter; a certain number of aphids per plant for example, with numbers above this threshold leading to a decision to apply a pesticide. We are taught the techniques to observe these pests, but again in many cases this observation is not routinely carried out and many pesticides are applied ‘just in case’. But why are we not regularly observing the population levels of natural predators of these pests? Sometimes the right decision is to take no action, but this rarely happens because the risks are too high. Pests are something that we, the human beings with our science and technology, need to control in order for us to be efficient. Our farms must always be pest free. Control means kill, and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
The mindset is beginning to change in farming, and there is a shift towards reconnecting with the way things were done in the past.
James Rebanks writes about this beautifully in his latest book, “English Pastoral” (which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in food and farming). He writes of how his grandfather, like mine, would spend hours just observing his farm - learning about his flock, noticing the minute changes that were happening in his fields. In one chapter, he describes his grandfather walking through his fields and skillfuly identifying and selecting individual species of grass from a sward. He then explained to the young James what each of these species were and how a knowledge of this was essential for a successful farmer.
In subsequent chapters, he describes how, in a drive to achieve greater efficiency and in a battle against constantly shrinking margins, his farm and many others (mine included) have deemed this knowledge to be less essential. In a couple of generations, we have become removed from this level of detail, believing that we can resolve any on farm issues through an increased application of “inputs” (chemicals and fertilisers). We have moved towards farming our fields by averages, treating each field as a single, uniform production facility, rather than seeking to understand the tiny variations in our fields in the way that James’ grandfather and others of his generation would have done.
The backlash against this conventional way of doing things can be seen through the rapid growth of Regenerative Agriculture. This is an approach which seeks to be less invasive and intensive, and aims to give space for nature to provide the answers as much as possible. It promotes mixed farming practices (a blend of both livestock and crops in a rotation) and an approach to farm management which prioritises soil health.
In most ways, I am highly supportive of this line of thinking as a better solution to the problems that farming and food production are facing at the moment. However, I think we need to broaden our thinking about how technology can help us to accelerate a transition to a better way of farming. The counter cultural approach can sometimes imply that in order for us to reconnect with the things that our forefathers knew about their farms, we need less technology.
I think we need more.
It is true that the technologies of the 3rd Agricultural Revolution - ever bigger tractors, the mass application of chemicals and fertilisers, the mindset that scale is synonymous with progress - have to some extent severed the connection that farmers have with the land. However, the answer is not shun all tech as a result. The technologies of the 4th Agricultural Revolution - robotics, artificial intelligence, and Per Plant Farming - will enable us to reconnect in such a way that we not only have the same level of insight that previous generations have had, but we are actually able to go much further.
Robots will be able us to identify each individual weed in a field, to measure the exact population density of every species, and AI will be able to tell us what this means and advise us on what we should do about it. AIs will enable us to identify the varying populations of different species of grass in our fields and communicate the signals that are being sent to us by the natural world. As we enter the trillion sensor economy, a vast array of interconnected sensors, some permanently stationed around the farm, will continuously monitor populations and movements of pests and predators and enable us to make data driven decisions. Sometimes the correct action will be that no action is required, but when we take those decisions we will take them with a confidence based on detailed and structured datasets - not on gut instinct - and this is where we will have an advantage over previous generations, and where we will take our farms to new levels of productivity and sustainability.
In this new sensor and AI enabled future, the soil will once more become appreciated as the variable, living thing that it is, rather than the uniform production facility that we consider it today - and what is more we will have the tools to treat it with the appropriate level of accuracy.
We do need to become more observant as farmers and food producers, and to re-learn the skill of reading the signals that nature sends us, and these new technologies are the means to accelerate our progress down that path.