Machine Work

One of my friends at the farmers market, a large scale conventional vegetable grower, told me that our big local nursery just bought a machine that will do the transplanting now. That machine eliminated 15 jobs.

By now I’m sure most people are aware of how rapidly automation and robots are eliminating human jobs. From cashiers, to truck drivers, to anesthesiologists–everybody seems to be on the firing line. I’ve seen estimates that as many as 60% of American jobs could be eliminated over the next 20 years.

These stories are usually in the context of concern about what will happen to the people who are working those jobs. I’ve written about that myself, several times.

But there is an interesting agricultural angle to this, that seems under-reported to me. Industrial agriculture is frantically trying to mechanize, not so much to increase profits as to address what they’re calling a crisis: the shortage of labor.

The cover story of last month’s Vegetable Grower magazine was titled: “The Disappearing Workforce. Vegetable Growers Need Labor.” The article began:

The No. 1 issue for vegetable growers isn’t pests, food safety, or even weather. It’s a lack of labor. Growers handle a lot of issues, from pests to uncooperative weather to heavy regulations. But all of those pale in the face of labor issues.

There are stories of crops rotting in the fields. For a variety of reasons, the labor source upon which the industry has historically depended is drying up.The growers are saying that their survival depends upon finding ways to harvest crops with fewer workers.

For commodity crops like corn and soybeans, automation isn’t very difficult. All you need are long rows and a big pile of money.

Mechanizing vegetable harvests is considerably more difficult, as machine harvesters damage the produce in ways skilled human hands don’t and, at least until lately, machines haven’t been able to distinguish ripe from unripe produce.

The agricultural machinery manufacturers are predicting a coming boom in sales, as they start rolling out newfangled machines that will do the old-fashioned human jobs. It’s interesting to see the kinds of changes that are being required by growers.

Row spacing has to change, to enable the machine to have enough room. Double row beds are being replaced by single row beds. Vegetable varieties that mature all at once are being engineered, so as to allow single-cut/destruct harvesting. Breeders are generating varieties that cluster their fruit more tightly, facilitating mechanical harvest. And now there is even a machine with an electronic sensor “eye” that can supposedly tell a green tomato from a ripe tomato, brushing one into one bin and the other into another (this after another machine yanks up the entire crop, vines and all, and delivers them to the sorter machine, which also grinds up the vines).

I can’t imagine that the taste and quality of vegetables will benefit from these changes.

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My Project

Three or four weeks ago, once I was satisfied that I’d completed enough of my long overdue “winter projects” around the farm, I finally got serious about working on a new writing project.

My idea was to write a history of this community in 1918, with the hope of publishing it in 2018.

Our memories of the past dim quickly, and that is only natural I suppose. Current events demand our attention and their importance is magnified by their immediacy. The past is, after all, past.

My hope was to draw some attention to life one hundred years ago, if for no better reason, to shine some light on the path we walked to get where we now stand.

I spent a few days in the library, reading the local newspaper from 1918.

There were some fascinating things occurring in 1918. The U.S. was preparing to enter the deadliest war in human history and, as if that wasn’t enough, the world was on the eve of the deadliest pandemic in human history. Here in the U.S. the states were in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting the use of alcohol. As a result of the coldest winter in recorded history, and the demands of war, there was a severe coal shortage, leading the federal government to order all American businesses to close for five consecutive days in January. There were food shortages too. In January the President called on Americans to have two “meatless” days per week and at least one meatless meal per day. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of southern black folks was underway as they moved north for high-paying factory jobs. Virginia was debating whether to require compulsory education of children, with our local paper complaining that to do so would be “a hardship on the people” and a denial of the right of self government. Evangelist Billy Sunday was drawing huge enthusiastic crowds around the country. And so on. These were just some of the headlines in the first month of the year.

I never got around to reading the rest of the news from 1918. This story from January 4 stopped me in my tracks.

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For a while I plodded on, but the story kept coming back to haunt me. I started dreaming about it at night.

I wondered if that story should be my writing project. Who were these people? What happened to them? Maybe that’s what I should research. Maybe that’s the story I should be telling.

I ran down a few fruitless rabbit holes searching for them, then something unexpected happened.

The story started coming to me. And then it came pouring out. I started dictating voice memos as the details emerged, sometimes in the middle of the night, and now I have hundreds of them. I’ve been typing it out a little each day, but my fingers can’t keep up. Still, they’re trying. I have about 25,000 words now and I reckon the story is about 1/3 told.

It’s not the “real” story, of course. I don’t know what happened to the actual Mrs. Scruggs or her children. But there is a story, a family and a set of lives that I am trying to capture, and in a bizarre way they seem real to me.

It’s strange. I don’t feel like I’m inventing the story. I genuinely feel like it was already there and I’m just writing it down. Those of you who write fiction are probably thinking, “Well of course. How did you think it happened?” But this is new to me. And exciting.

I don’t know if this story will ever be published or not. But it has become my writing project.

 

 

Rowan

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We had no intention of owning livestock when we first moved back here. But our daughter was horse-crazy, so we agreed to buy her a horse. So she would have a riding buddy, we also got one for her friend who lives down the road.

We bought the horses from a nearby girls boarding school. Often when the girls graduate they’re unable to take their horses with them, so they donate their horses to the school. Our daughter got a black mare named Domino and her friend got a big gelding named Rowan.

I have great memories of seeing the girls riding, and the lessons our daughter learned from taking care of her horse have been beneficial to her in the grown-up world.

About 8 years ago Domino contracted a rare disease that caused her to lose her ability to balance. We had to have her put down, breaking our daughter’s heart. And Rowan’s.

He eventually adapted to life among the goats. Occasionally affectionate, often grumpy and always amusing, Rowan has been featured in plenty of my posts over the years.

Rowan passed away on Wednesday. Although he was entering horse old age, his death was unexpected.

We buried him in the pasture next to his old friend Domino.

He will be missed.

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The Sunflower Verdict

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Thinking about this year’s garden rotation this morning and I have sunflowers on my mind.

Since the plan is to have far fewer gardens in the rotation this year, we’re not going to have enough space for everything we’ve planted in the past. So what about sunflowers? Do they get the ax?

We grow a large garden of them every year and, truth be told, they don’t do much for the farm economically. We sell a few of them. They feed the pollinators and the chickens. They’re a good biomass summer cover crop. But they’re not making much of a contribution economically. So should we replace them with something that might have more marketing potential and still be pollinator-friendly?

Nah. They’re staying. When I weigh all the pro’s and con’s, the pro that carries the day for the sunflowers is simply that we like looking at them. Whenever I see the sunflowers I get the sensation that the garden is smiling at me. What’s that worth? Enough to keep them.

We’re going to increase significantly the  size of our onions garden. It seems we never have enough of those. And as soon as they’re harvested in July, we’ll follow them with sunflowers. A cheerful image on a cold February morning.

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Feeding a Hungry Planet?

This morning I read this in an industrial ag publication:

Overall per-capita meat consumption (pork and poultry) was up 5% in the U.S., the biggest increase since the 1970’s. The big driver in 2015 was the 7.3% increase in pork production….The production of meat in the U.S. is expected to grow 2.5% this year (2016) with similar increases in 2017 and 2018. Odds don’t favor foreign markets absorbing our production increases. Instead, the industry will be looking for further consumption growth in the U.S. By the end of the expansion cycle in 2018, however, producer profits may be harder to capture as retail prices will have to be lowered to spur consumers to eat more meat and poultry.

Let’s translate that. Despite already having the highest per-capita meat consumption on earth, Americans just bumped their meat eating up another 5% and are set to increase it yet another 5% over the next two years. Despite the nearly universal consensus that Americans need to reduce their meat consumption (for lots of reasons, not the least of which are the adverse health consequences of meat-rich diets), the industry expects that after a 3-year ten percent increase in consumption, they will have to lower prices to “spur consumers” to eat even MORE meat.

And here’s the biggest and most important take-away of all: even as the industry says this out of one side of its metaphorical mouth, out of the other side it continues to repeat the mantra of industrial agriculture: “Our high-intensity animal confinement facilities, our assembly-line slaughter houses, our taxpayer-subsidized GMO pigfeed corn, our massive ‘lagoons’ of liquefied pig shit–all are necessary because we have to (wait for it) feed a hungry planet.”

Shaking my head.

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