Innovation is one of the buzzwords of the 21st century, and like its cousin “technology” it has become almost synonomous with Silicon Valley and the internet. But all successful farmers — from the smallest to the largest — incorporate continuous innovation into their farms.
Most small farmers are pretty scrappy. When we first started Terra Firma, the improvements we made were both rudimentary and revolutionary. When you don’t have a tractor, or a cooler, or a greenhouse, acquiring or building one for the first time makes a massive difference in your ability to farm.
The whole process was completely hand-to-mouth. We bought old stuff because we couldn’t afford new and we didn’t have any credit. So we spent half our time fixing it. But a strange thing happens when you take things apart: you start thinking about how to improve them, or even how to build other things.
American culture teaches us to be good consumers — how to look for, find and buy the things we need. But farmers can’t always buy the tools they need. Sometimes they simply don’t exist. Other times they cost too much, or the only ones for sale in the country are 3000 miles away (farm equipment can be difficult to move long distances).
Put in this situation, farmers of all sizes and shapes innovate and adapt. On rare occasions they continue to perfect their projects to the point where other farmers want to buy them — and not just copy them. But most of the time, they are too busy and too focused on their primary goal: farming.
Fresh produce farmers across the United States right now are desperate to find ways to reduce the amount of labor it takes to harvest fruits and vegetables. For ten years now, our government has had an official policy that is hostile towards the primary source of agricultural workers: undocumented immigrants. The politics of immigration has been allowed to outrank overwhelming evidence that even so-called “low-skilled” immigrants boost our economy.
There is no plan in the works to provide a legal agricultural workforce. And machines do not yet exist, at any price, that will do the work. No program exists to fund, design and build the technology. When farmers ask their government representatives “what is the plan to keep fresh produce farming viable in the U.S.?”, they get no response.
Private industry can and will respond to the crisis, but only if the numbers pencil out. A large strawberry grower in Florida is working with a robotics company to design and build a completely automated berry harvester. But how many farmers will be able to afford this machine? And what about other fruit crops with a smaller market?
A viable domestic fresh produce industry is vital to the future health and happiness of our country. It’s too important to leave the task of innovation to individual farmers. We need a national plan and funding to match it, and it should give small farmers the same access to the technology developed as large ones.