July 27, 2007

Farm Technology

tractor
Since its beginning thousands of years ago, agriculture has seen constant innovation. Technologies for growing, harvesting, transporting and selling crops are continually emerging and evolving. Faced with the countless new techniques, machines, and crop varieties presented to them every year, growers must decide which are best for their farms. Their decisions are based on farm size, crops, capital, their farming philosophy, and their capacity to implement the technologies. Most farmers experiment with at least a few new varieties or techniques every year, and many even develop their own. So which are the most important technologies to growers? CUESA volunteer Jessica Arnett asked a few farmers; here’s her report:

What is the single most important technology on the farm?  It depends on whom you ask.

“The grain combine,” says Greg of Massa Organics.
“Drip irrigation,” says Kirsten of Hunter Orchards.     
“My cell phone,” says Farmer Al of Frog Hollow. 

Greg Massa grows 60 acres of organic whole-grain brown rice and is trying to slowly expand organic production into the rest of the 700-acre family farm. In the fields, Greg says the most important and efficient technology is the grain combine that harvests and cleans his rice. Before this important machine was invented (which “combines” the tasks of harvesting, threshing, and cleaning), grain production required much more time and labor.

The technology Greg most hopes for is an organic, energy-efficient way to deal with weeds, which are his biggest problem. Thinking that nature might provide him a new solution, Greg once tried using ducks to weed his fields. “They’re great because they eat weeds and slugs while staying away from the rice plants,” he says. The problem is that he would need 100 ducks per acre to weed efficiently. That would mean 6000 ducks for his 60 acres. What do you do with 6000 ducks after they eat the weeds?  Greg is still trying to figure this one out.

Kirsten Olson, who runs the 20-acre Hunter Orchards with her husband John Tannaci, says one of the most important technologies on their farm is drip irrigation. This system efficiently delivers water to their garlic, squash, and fruit trees by allowing it to slowly drip into the soil, reducing evaporation. Some of Kirsten’s other favorite technologies are also resource-conserving: they use solar power on the farm and biodiesel in their tractors and trucks. The question Kirsten asks herself with regard to technology is this:  “Where does technology take us and is that a place we want to go?” If it is, then it’s worth using.

But Kirsten’s motto is still “dirt first.” “There is an arsenal of new organic materials to choose from,” she says, “and we use them as a last resort.  If you can really provide your plants with healthy soil, then your plants will have a better chance to do well.” Some of the best technologies to promote soil fertility and plant health are those that have proven themselves for hundreds of years to be both effective and sustainable—technologies like cover cropping and adding compost to soils.  

Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm uses minimal technology on his 130 acres of peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots, pluots, plums, pears, and table grapes. “Everything is done by hand,” says Farmer Al, and that’s how he likes it. There are about 55 workers on the farm at the height of the season. “We’re comfortable with the low level of technology,” he says.  For Farmer Al, the single most important piece of farm technology is the same one that many of us would name as ours: his cell phone. He says his phone is an important management tool and that nearly everyone on his crew uses them to communicate.

With each new technology introduced, farmers are faced with the choice to either embrace or reject it; their choices play a major role in shaping our food system.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »