SciFi in Ag: The Great ‘Small-Family-Farm’ Comeback

One company in North Dakota owns 42,000 acres of prime farmland, 34 grain elevators, a grain-trading firm, and three company towns with dozens of smaller company-owned businesses.

Never heard of it? Probably because the year is 1893.

Bonanza farms, as it was known in the second-to-last century, was an operation of over 3,000 acres. The three largest of Bonanza farms in North Dakota combined made up of over 70,000 acres. By the 1910’s, the reign of Bonanza farms was over. (The pretty cool museum in Fargo, however, still thrives).

What happened? Simply enough, the cash ran out. The bankruptcy of a railroad running through North Dakota allowed Bonanza farms their chance to flourish . Additionally, the actual sinking of the Titanic played a role in the consequential end of the era. Sadly, a major east-coast investor of Bonanza farms went down with the ship––as did his farms.

When this investor passed away, his family fought over the surplus of assets left in his farm back in North Dakota. In the end, the battle over ownership broke up the once-enormous farm into many smaller pieces.

There is, however, a scary rhetoric in the industry that farmers will be replaced by technology. I can even create a case so compelling the only question left is not if, but when.

I come from a farm and I have many friends that farm today that I get continued Snapchats on the regular consisting of progress on droughts, storms, sprayings, welding projects, calvings, and all the rest of it. The struggle to get into farming is real. It’s expensive, it’s risky, and it requires a hell of a lot of work, sleepless nights, and hopefully, very understanding spouses. It requires patience and willing families to hand down operations, and most importantly, access to land.

From my research, the underlying theme is ‘technology’ is a necessity to create disruption in farm sizes and it’s the same theme even across the centuries. In 1831, Cyrus Mccormick invented the mechanical reaper which allowed farmers to stop using scythes. Which is a 5,000 year old tool that now most people can’t even recognize the word, let alone pronounce it correctly.

The percentage of the farming population in relation to the whole population has plummeted since that invention. While the percentage of farmers has decreased an eyebrow-raising amount, the amount of people involved in ag has actually remained about the same. This same number of people produces more and more food, for more and more people.

The technology in the 1800s allowed for farmers to become bigger. With fresh, highly productive equipment, the management of such scale became possible during the same time land was cheap and accessible, especially from the railroad bankruptcy. If farms were getting bigger in the 1800s mostly due to the technology of the day, what caused them to get smaller into the next century?

Interestingly enough, the same technology that increased yields and productivity in the short run made it possible to afford farming on smaller segments of land in the long run. This actually allowed people who were farm hands during the 1800s to fulfill their own dreams of being self-employed, and begin farming themselves.

Here is the hard part to explain: farmland became cheap and at the same time farming got done on a larger scale that actually provided an opportunity for farmhands to become their own boss, and not just to make large farms larger. There wasn’t enough people to farm all the land that was possible to farm, but with the technology, all of a sudden there were enough resources to get the job done. This is why we see the percentage of farmers dwindle relative to the population, but at the same time the number of people involved in ag remain about the same.

The thesis? Access to land is essential to get into farming, if and only if the access is coupled with technology can more people get into farming. Together, this will allow more people to get into the farming industry by providing efficiency to perform. In order for farms to get smaller and be more family focused more people have to farm.

Career choice and all the struggles to start farming are in the way for families to get into it or back into it, but what if we could have more people become farmers without consuming their time and money? Consider my prior point on the concept of farms getting smaller instead of bigger due to access of land and new technologies. This framework is coming to reality (leading to the potential but not the necessity) as there is a very untapped and extremely accessible amount of land still available for agriculture use that can keep farms family run. I’m talking the 30-40 million acres that make up ‘the great American lawn’.

Lawns in the U.S. actually use up more fertilizer and more chemicals than major agricultural production, and do so inefficiently. The possibility of autonomous farming and big data could immediately transform these lagging issues into innovative solutions. What was once trade-secrets of family farms could now feed artificial intelligence platforms. This is the perfect recipe to turn this estimated 30-40 million acres of lawn land into productive farmland. I mean, the owners of the lawns don’t actually have to know how to farm. They just need to know how to program a few things here and there, and voila –– fresh food!

It seems to me we have the two very things that the 1800s had which kept farms small and family run:

  1. Access to land (lawns)
  2. Access to fresh technologies

Who knew Bonanza Farms could have a footprint in the next steps of ag?

Now for autonomous lawn farming; certainly possible within my lifetime…

##

(SOURCES)

https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-employment/

https://sciencing.com/during-early-1800s-americans-earned-living-what-12580.html

https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-2-making-living/topic-3-farming/section-4-bonanza-farms

https://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/22/nyregion/bidding-goodbye-to-the-great-american-lawn.html

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