Wednesday, December 30, 2015

so what's the big deal about mechanization?

Why is it so important to mechanize ‘best practices’ (see previous post)? (Caveat: ‘conventional management’ is something of a moving target. The entire industry is in slow upheaval and transforming itself incrementally, in response to diverse pressures. At some point, it may even become an ally in the pursuit of ‘best practices’, and short of that it's quite likely to adopt new technologies as they prove themselves feasible.)

Anything new must compete effectively with what already exists. In the developed world, the cultivation of commodity crops, like wheat, feed corn, and soya, is already highly mechanized. Every operation from preparing the seed bed (or planting through stubble) to harvest is performed by machine. Consequently, the prices the market will pay for such commodities is predicated on mechanical production. Any competing production regime must manage to operate profitably despite this, or no farmer will use it.

In fact, this is such a compelling argument that it simply doesn't make sense to start out by attempting to compete with conventional agriculture in the context in which it is at its most efficient, as defined in its own terms. Instead, the objective should be to bring the prices of other crops, the production of which are not so easily mechanized, more in line with the prices of commodity crops, to increase the proportion of people's diets they comprise, while managing their production according to ‘best practices’, gradually removing land from conventional management in the process. Once the technology is mature and economies of scale are in place, then maybe it will be time to include bulk commodities; a development which could be accelerated by the advent of perennial varieties of cereal crops.

But being able to compete in the market just gets you into the game; the real value in the mechanization of ‘best practices’ stems from its necessarily robotic nature, meaning that it would unavoidably be built around the acquisition, transformation, and utilization of information. Properly handled, that information could form the basis for an understanding of plant husbandry comparable to that of a master gardener, but more detailed, and vastly more reproducible (what one such machine knows others can learn almost instantly).

It is this sophistication, founded partly in programming and partly in machine learning, that can ultimately make mechanized horticulture uniquely successful, given that there will never be enough master gardeners to go around, at producing what people need while protecting biological diversity and rebuilding the fertility of the soil.

No comments: