Automation In Agriculture – And Forces That Drive It

Visit a farm and get lessons in labor, regulations, security, deadlines, weather, and international trade. It’s good news for engineers.  A little grim for the rest of us.

Thursday, August 30, I had the opportunity to make a quick run up to Michigan. A few hours after we landed, I was standing in a field of sugar beets, getting insights that stretched from the ground I was standing on, all the way out to the future of our country.

Initially, I was simply interested in the automation used in the harvest. It is pretty amazing.

My attention was redirected to the trucks that carried the harvested sugar beets.

From there, my speed education took on layer after layer of significance.

We talked a lot. I’m going to summarize it down for you, as best I can, focusing on six obvious challenges that farmers have to overcome, just to stay in business. And I won’t refer to education, taxes, money, or credit.

In this case, we’re talking about a large, long standing, well run operation with an excellent reputation.

I see this one farm as a representation of a region, an industry, small business in general, and an indicator of national and international forces.

I’ll try to be quick. There’s no way I can be detailed. Perhaps you can take some of what I learned and carry it to a higher level.

Now, back to the trucks…

Excess Regulation

In the harvest that I saw, a tractor was outfitted with a cool hamster cage kind of a thing that went around and around, plucking the beets out of the ground like there was nothing to it. The beets run up a chute and drop into a truck that is cruising along, right next to the tractor.

Here’s the side story… The first year this team experimented, raising sugar beets, the trucks weren’t big enough. The police pulled them over, complaining that the trucks were overloaded.

No relief. The team had to go back, unload by hand, and run more trips, all while the magical beet picker was craving action.

Today, there’s a string of semis, five axles per trailer, and three axles per cab.

You don’t just go buy trucks and put them into action. They have to be licensed, and they have to be weighed and, I don’t know, licensed again, or something.

Bottom line, crops and livestock operate on God’s timeline. Government has its own timeline.

Consider this: This same team… the one that is now raising grain and harvesting beets… used to run a huge dairy operation. It was profitable. And it was a source of money, jobs, and food for the local community. (Remember, the dairy industry generates dairy products AND meat.)

In one $40,000 bout with regulatory flimflam, the owner pulled the plug and instantly and permanently shut down his large and successful dairy operation.

Do you have any idea what that means to a community?

Do you have any idea how long it takes to get a dairy farm up and running?

And this is not just some little local snit. Businesses are under attack every day, all across our country.

Extortion In Oregon

Right now, Oregon farmers and state officials are in a fight with the U.S. Labor Department. In July, federal authorities put a hold on an entire crop of blueberries.

They invoked a “hot goods” provision of labor law that prohibited processing or shipment of the berries.

Then, the federal agency told the farmers that they could make everything go away if they paid “a fine and back wages and sign a consent judgment admitting wrong and agreeing not to contest the order even if subsequent information exonerated the farms.”

It’s “extortion,” said Greg Ditchen whose farm had to pay $169,816 in back wages and penalties. He had no other choice. It was either that or let his crops go to waste.

And his was just one of three farms cited in Marion County.

You can read the full story as Eric Mortenson reports it for The Oregonian. Here’s the link…

Crime Encroaches

My ignorance of crime problems must have been particularly obvious. It’s easy to go stupid, standing in the fields, thinking lovely thoughts about God and nature, totally clueless of the danger around you.

I heard stories of daytime burglaries, stolen vehicles, even a marijuana patch hidden in a corn field.

What I didn’t grasp… These aren’t one-off stories.

When I got home, I did a little research. Detroit, you know, has been in total collapse. Saginaw, until just recently, had the highest murder rate in the nation. Flint moved up the list. And Pontiac still gets headlines.

Across south Michigan, major cities are in decay. The tax base is failing. Even as police call for hundreds more officers, there is simply no money to pay them.

And To Prove The Point

Saturday, a Detroit man shot four people, killing two. After driving around for a few hours, he decided to turn himself in. He pulled in to a fire station and explained that he had killed two people.

The fire guys called the police.

“Due to area patrol units being busy handling high priority runs, no units were dispatched to the location.”

The “suspect” eventually drove over to the 10th Precinct in order to finally get himself arrested.

Here’s a link to WDIV’s story…

This crime segment of my farming story may shed some light on why so many folks have a clear understanding of the Right To Bear Arms.

When you and your food, cash, and valuables are surrounded by thousands of empty acres and an overworked police force, self-defense is not an idle topic.

Crime Declines, Prisons Are Packed

Now here’s some food for thought…

Nationwide, there has been a stunning reduction in crime. Seriously.

In fact, no one seems to know exactly why.

There is broad agreement that a massive increase in incarcerations might have had an effect. Some reports say the prison population has tripled.

The FBI may offer the best crime stats. They are clear that many incidents go unreported. They also avoid drawing obvious conclusions, because they want to be nice, I suppose.

If you want to do the math for yourself, here’s a link to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2011.

Also, the U.S Census deals with this sort of thing in the 2012 Statistical Abstract. Here’s another pile of numbers that can amuse you for hours…

Cities Are Failing

Cities around the country are filing for bankruptcy. California is the worst.

Prisoners have been released in quantity, because there’s no money to take care of them.

So, what happens on farms where encroaching crime is already a problem?

Will it be compounded by the combined threat of shrinking police protection and large scale early release programs?

That’s a problem for farmers. They can’t roll up their fields and move them somewhere safer.

Labor Shortages

This is a beauty.

Small farms don’t have the resources to fight off government meddling. (This is a common complaint in nearly every industry, actually.)

So, for farmers, the survivors must be large farms. The little guys cannot stay afloat. Still, politicians publicly decry the declining number of farmers, even as they work to eliminate them, altogether.

Big farms mean big acreage. And big acreage requires big machinery.

Of course, it’s not always a good idea to put just anybody behind the controls of a quarter million dollars of equipment.

Now consider this… The average farmer is like, a gazillion years old.

Farms tend to be family businesses. For one thing, the hours are long, and the drive to work is short only for people living on the property.

Our government has determined that it should protect young people who happen to live on a farm. Rather than allowing young people to become responsible, useful, and self-reliant, our nation prefers that young people stay inside, where it’s safe.

Only after we have made young Americans lazy, ignorant, and clueless will we invite them to join our workforce.

Bottom line, the imminent decline in the number of farmers will be compounded by governmental restriction of qualified people entering the ag industry.

Add to that the government imposed costs associated with any employee, and farmers are pushed, again and again toward massive operations with huge automation.

The Obvious

Let’s be sure we’ve touched on a few tidbits that any farmer already knows.

Mother Nature is a devious partner in the pursuit of food production.

In the interest of time, we’ll skip over plague, pestilence, fire, and brimstone. This time, we’ll acknowledge a nasty drought.

While city sophisticates demand organic foods – without any idea what “organic” actually means – the majority of the world is desperate for any food at all.

I talked to a farmer who was stinging a bit from an article complaining about varying crop production.

“Don’t they know we’re trying?” he asked.

I find it amazing that anyone can jump through this maze of hurdles, produce anything at all, and then feel obligated to apologize to people who choose to burn their food for fuel, rather than eat it.

To the farmers of America, I say, “We don’t deserve you.”

And, in fact, that may come to pass, as well.

Chinese Buyers – With Cash

While we deliberately trash our dollar, mistreat our farmers, and prepare to cause inflation of historic proportions, a new player is joining us.

Part of my conversation, drifting, now clear into dinner, touched on the farmer’s vacation to the east coast.

The locals there commented that Chinese investors seemed to be buying a lot of property.

From my studies that made sense.

China is a tough place to live. But there are a lot of wealthy Chinese. And many of them are leaving China to explore the world.

What are they supposed to do?

We’re giving his country away. They see value in all resources – especially food. And they have cold, hard cash.

One of my last observations about the business of farming…

“Some day, you will be face to face with someone from China. He will have a lot of money. He will either be your supplier, your customer, or he even might offer to buy you out, altogether. Then, what?”

The man who shut down his dairy operation sat quietly.

Maybe he wants to hear a price.

Recruiter’s View

Consumers in the U.S. can look forward to higher food prices and possible shortages. Farmers anticipate rising costs and complex regulations.

The farmers win. If Americans don’t buy their products, someone else will.

Look for job growth among manufacturers of farm equipment, including trucks. Seed, fertilizer, and pesticides will continue strong.

It’s not just a matter of productivity and innovation. Honeywell famously thrives on bizarre regulations, reminding stockholders that every new law causes a new product.

I’m now wondering about companies offering surveillance systems specifically designed for farms. Is this a market?

On the user side, contract purchases of crop production are designed to minimize risks. However, the mere suggestion of shortages will intensify research and experimentation.

Companies are making big bets on how to grow more, harvest more, or process more effectively.

To me, every aspect of agriculture, food processing, and transportation is screaming for new advances in automation.

This is a good time to be an engineer.

— TD