Farm Food Facts

Ep 27 Geoff Ruth, John Seabrook, Disaster Resilient Farming

June 04, 2019 Episode 27
Farm Food Facts
Ep 27 Geoff Ruth, John Seabrook, Disaster Resilient Farming
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Ep 27 Geoff Ruth, John Seabrook, Disaster Resilient Farming
Jun 04, 2019 Episode 27
USFRA
Show Notes Transcript

Our Thought Leader for today is John Seabrook, Journalist for the New Yorker.

The Stories You Need to Know:
New UN Agriculture Agency Report says “Disaster Resilient” Farming can Reduce agriculture Risks and yield Economic Gain
Atlanta creates the first “Food Forest” in Georgia
Humans in my Food Supply Chain?

Today's Farmer is Geoff Ruth, a Nebraska Farmer who uses drones to monitor yield and productivity



Phil Lempert:
0:01
Farm, Food, Facts: where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Our thought leader today is John Seabrook, author of four books and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine - one of my favorite magazines by the way - whose article "The Age of Robot Farmers" caught my attention and it's a must read for every farmer, retailer, and shopper. John's well-written and insightful article reinforces the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance pathway that agriculture is the solution for ecosystem services and elevates the ability for ag to be a solution for the bioeconomy, for food systems of the future, to solve for climate-smart solutions, and provide vital ecosystem services. As John writes, at the beginning of the 20th century, about a third of the U.S. population lived on farms. Today it's less than 1%. John, welcome to Farm, Food, Facts.
John Seabrook:
0:59
Thanks Phil. Nice to be here.
Phil Lempert:
1:01
You know, your article details the trials and tribulations of a strawberry farm, Wish Farms in Florida, that picks, chills, and ships some 20 million strawberries, all of which today is handpicked by 650 seasonal farm laborers. What surprised you most in your visit?
John Seabrook:
1:19
Well, the hard work of picking strawberries is something that I'd never spent a lot of time thinking about. I had done a little of it myself. But, you know, to see these guys out there in the fields all day, the way they work and the speed with which they work, and the dexterity involved in picking a ripe strawberry and choosing the ripe ones from the unripe ones. First of all, just the labor involved in that was surprising. And then, when I began to think about the job that was involved in automating that task - you think of a picking of a strawberry, not that complicated of a task, but when you actually sit down to design a machine to do it, you realize how much is going on.
Phil Lempert:
2:02
So, before we get to the automation of it, you write that picking a strawberry properly requires speed, dexterity, as you mentioned, and stamina, and that picking strawberries is a young person's game. Tell me a bit more about that.
John Seabrook:
2:16
You're out there in a crowd, sort of bent over. The women are a little closer to the ground than the men, so in some ways they have an easier time of it. But it's not a comfortable position to be in. And you're paid by the flat - eight clam shells, one pound, clear plastic clamshells filled with strawberries and eight of those makes up or flat - and a flat will basically get you $2 to $3 depending on the season. So, to make a $15 an hour wage, you have to pick about 60 flats or so. That's a lot of picking. And it's hot and, there are bugs, and strawberries have a lot of pesticides if you're in the non-organic fields. So, it's an unpleasant workplace and the people who do it are not really a people with a lot of choices. One of the other fascinating things, really about agriculture in the developed world, is that nobody who lives in the developed countries that export agriculture pick the fruits and berries. It's like a basic fact of development, that as soon as you get to the point where you're developed enough to export fruits or vegetables, your labor force is developed enough so that they don't want to pick the fruits and vegetables.
Phil Lempert:
3:36
Tell me about Berry 5.1. What's that all about?
John Seabrook:
3:40
Okay, so - these guys at Wish Farms want to come up with a machine that can basically do what a crew of 30 pickers can do in about eight hours. So, instead of having a 30 man crew, you'd rent one of these machines from the company - Harvest Crew that makes them - and all you need is this machine, and it can work 24 hours, it can work at night - actually, better at night than at day. It's better to pick berries at night because they're cooler and therefore you don't have to spend as much energy in cooling them down. The one I saw, it didn't have 12 picking robots but it's supposed to have 12 - and by picking robot, I mean it's really just a wheel with six claws on it spaced in regular intervals around the wheel, and their claws are kind of made out of these sort of soft rubber kind of material that, once they close over a berry, they twist, mimicking the wrist action of a picker. Cause you can't just pull the thing off, you have to sort of twist it so that it doesn't bruise. And so, these things are able to do that, but really there's basically two things that you have to solve if you're going to make a robot to pick strawberries. One is you have to be able to pick them without squashing them. But the second, and kind of harder thing, is that you have to be able to only pick the ripe ones. That's why people are still required to pick so many different fruits and vegetables is because they don't all ripen at the same time, because you don't want them to ripen all the same time because you don't want them all in the market at the same time. So, to have the intelligence to make the judgment about which ones are ripe or not - that's the ballgame. And that, to me, was the most amazing part of it.
Phil Lempert:
5:32
They figured out how to do that?
John Seabrook:
5:34
They really have. I mean, they haven't got it so that they can do it all commercially in a big field, but what they've done is - so, it takes a human about 10 seconds to pick a strawberry bush and so they kind of aim for that as a benchmark, eight to 10 seconds - but when a human picks, a strawberry bush, it's sort of works its way through the leaves and looks for the ripe berries and then picks those, but when the machine does it, it hovers over the bush. It has these two stereoscopic cameras that are infrared - you can see through the leaves - and it just hovers over that bush and it's taking pictures of all the berries on that bush. And then it's sending that information over a high speed data link up to the Cloud - Microsoft Cloud, they use Microsoft - with the algorithms and all the other stuff. And then, if they've already seen that plant, they have pictures stored from the last time the machine passed over that plant so they know which berries are likely to be ripe based on time as well as on color. So, the machine, in that 10 seconds, targets the three or four berries that are ripe. And then, when it's decided, the wheel comes swooping down and in like a blur that's really right out of science fiction, the robot just within a blink of an eye picks those ripe berries. And then it moves on to the next bush and does the thing over again.
Phil Lempert:
7:13
As part of this article, you also met with David Slaughter, at UC Davis. He leads their Smart Farm initiative. What are some of the future technologies that he shared with you that you think can change the future of farming?
John Seabrook:
7:29
Well, it's all about data. It's all about collecting data and then figuring out how to process it. But really, at this point, I think what I saw at UC Davis were fields that were like maps of data, in which each tomato plant was GPS plotted so that the Cloud up there knows that unique identity of each individual plant and can store all the data that you collect about that plant up there, associated with the GPS coordinates so that you're no longer doing a one-size-fits-all approach to whatever you're doing, cultivating or watering or fertilizing. If you have the data, and then you have some kind of machine that can act on that data - I saw a robotic leader. So, it works with that tomato plant GPS field where it knows where all the GPS coordinates of the tomato plants are, and then it has machine vision to see whatever else is there. And so, if the thing isn't on the spot where the GPS coordinate is, then it's a weed and then they take it out. It's like a little Rumba for a field. He showed me a lot of interesting stuff done with fruit trees with light capture; you can use data sensors to show which parts of the tree are getting more light and which parts of the tree are getting less light, which can affect the ripening, and other qualities of health of the tree, and can inform how you go about harvesting that tree. It's basically like you have a field up in the Cloud, and it's all made out of data but it corresponds to your field down on Earth. Once you see it, you realize that this is a new wave of mechanization - you started the program talking about the 20th century wave of mechanization that people left the land because of, but I feel like we're on the verge of a new wave.
Phil Lempert:
9:47
And the other thing that I got from the article: we've got labor shortages that will probably continue, we certainly have a lot of issues as it relates to the weather. So, I'm wondering, in your opinion, whether or not these new technologies - to your latter point - are not only going to create a new, more efficient way of farming, but also do you think that it's going to attract a new crop of farmers? Younger people, college educated people, who have grown up on video games, who really understand this technology perhaps better than a 70-year-old farmer does?
John Seabrook:
10:33
Yeah, it was a very good question. And I think that certainly in vertical farming, which is the sector that's still quite small but it's growing rapidly. I went to two different vertical-type farms for this piece where one guy was from Google - he worked at Google on automated cars and drones and stuff before he set up this farm essentially - and then, another guy was a venture capital guy who saw it is a business opportunity because there is a lot of venture capital money out there for starting these vertical farms. The potential of vertical farms though, it's still a little bit of a question mark because of the costs of the lighting, and whether you can grow anything more than greens and make a living at it. So, it's going to be a while there but definitely those people are a whole different class of people from the typical farmer. And I also think that what you'll see is a different kind of farm worker probably. A lot of this is being driven by labor shortages. There's a real economic component. Labor is still fairly cheap, relatively cheap. But, definitely, that's the driver here. Immigration is part of that, but it's also the Mexican workers. They don't want to do the work either, their kids don't want to do the work. There's going to be a lot of these machines that are going to need servicing. So, my hope - and I think a lot of people's hope - is that the kids of the farm workers will get an opportunity to learn enough engineering, STEM-type skills that they'll be able to get good jobs, better jobs, high tech jobs, working on the machines rather than picking the strawberries. Hopefully that'll happen.
Phil Lempert:
12:20
Well, John, thanks for writing a terrific, eye-opening article. It's in the April 8th edition of the New Yorker. Google it, buy it. I urge everyone in the food world, and everyone who eats food, which I guess is all of us, to read it. And thank you for joining us on Farm, Food, Facts today. And now, here's the news.
Phil Lempert:
12:46
A new UN Agriculture Agency report says disaster resilient farming can reduce agriculture risks and yield economic gain. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization launched a new study titled Disaster Risk Production At Farm Level: Multiple Benefits, No Regrets. The study examines the scale of economic gains that can be achieved through easy-to-implement disaster resilient farming practice, including planting mangroves to protect coastal areas from flooding and shifting to rooftop water collection and irrigation systems. FAO's study shows that good practices have considerable potential to reduce damages exerted on developing world agriculture by smaller scale, lower intensity disasters. And while these attract a lot less attention than large scale hazards like dry or cold spells, they represent an ongoing problem for the two and a half billion people who rely on small scale agriculture. What grocers need to know is that farmers cannot control the weather. But, what they can do is proactively protect their farmland, but that takes money. And by developing long-term financial relationships between farmers and grocers, they can afford to follow these guidelines which will also assure grocers have a continuous supply.
Phil Lempert:
14:03
And on the topic of small scale agriculture, Atlanta creates the first food forest in Georgia. The Atlanta City Council unanimously approved the transformation of 7.1 acres of property into a public park and garden. This food forest is the first of its kind in Georgia and the largest in the U.S. The urban food forest has been in the works since 2016, when the city accepted and $85,000 grant from theU.S. Forest Service Community Forest and Open Space Program. This green space, which was previously just vacant property, will feature trees, shrubs, and vines that produce fruit as well as walking trails, a community garden, and restored forest and stream areas. Residents will be able to pick their produce from trees in the public park free of charge. Trees Atlanta, which is conducting educational programs at the site, has contributed funds to hire part-time staff, including a food forest ranger and community workforce educator. The city will also create a trust fund for outreach efforts related to the food forest. What grocers need to know is that the more food experiences your shoppers have, the more they will understand where their food come from, and the more opportunities your stores have to expand their shopping horizons to a wider variety of produce. So, sample, sample, sample, and be sure to support projects like this one in Atlanta in your hometown.
Phil Lempert:
15:30
And what about agriculture and food supply on a larger scale? Let's see how that's evolving and changing. Humans in the food supply chain. How important are they? Global supply chains are packed with people doing everything from deliveries to preparing chickens to running forklifts. People are a huge part of the journey that food takes because humans are involved at every point of the infrastructure of food. They own the farms, they harvest the crops, they haul the food, they prepare it, they sell the food, deliver the food, and deal with the waste. And while human roles in the system are changing with technology, we still need humans in these many layers. The people in the middle are largely not seen in our media such as those farmers that we've talked about on The American Farm on HISTORY, but it's time for them to become more visible. We need to really start hearing from these people in the middle of the supply chain from farm to fork. We must be curious about how they feel about the work they do, the impact they make, and how they see their jobs and roles evolving in the face of technology. Especially now that technology is enabling farmers to do better and more of it. What grocers need to know is it's time to invite not only the farmers, but the packers, distributors, and even truckers to your stores to talk with your customers. Shoppers love hearing about the journey of food and have the ability to ask questions.
Phil Lempert:
17:04
Today we chat with Geoff Ruth. Geoff is a seventh-generation farmer located in the heart of Nebraska, between Polk County Shelby and Butler County's Rising City. Living in the same family house as his grandmother and Dad, Geoff and his wife Christa are now raising their three children on the exact same farm. 2,800 acres of land, corn and soybean is farmed by Geoff and his father, Bart. The Ruths pride themselves as generational farmers who have evolved over the years to continue to fulfill the demand to feed the world. Geoff has held a chair on the Soybean Association for the past 10 years, and is passionate about educating people about not only the demands of what a farmer's responsible for, but what technology and practices are helping to make it possible. And it's the technology that we want to talk to Geoff about today. In particular, about drones. Geoff, welcome to Farm, Food, Facts.
Geoff Ruth:
18:01
Thank you Phil. It's a pleasure to be here.
Phil Lempert:
18:03
First off, I see on your Twitter feed that you just ran a half marathon. But, you say it was one of the worst decisions you've ever made. Why?
Geoff Ruth:
18:12
Well, for the physical and health benefit, it was probably a good decision. If I had the opportunity to choose a different time of year, when we're not so busy and give up one of the most beautiful days we've had this spring, I probably would have done so, but happy to have done it.
Phil Lempert:
18:29
Okay. Well, let's get back to the field. Over the past 10 or 12 years you've incorporated GPS technology, variable rate seeding and fertilizer, greater chemical placement, yield mapping, minimum and no-till practices, as well as cover cropping. What's been the result of all this?
Geoff Ruth:
18:49
Well, the results for our farm has been huge advances in yield, which directly affects our bottom line; the more crop that we have to market, the greater return we have from the monetary side. We've also seen greater soil health, less fertilizer usage, or more direct placed fertilizer usage in the areas that we can really push productivity and reduced fertilizers in the areas where for productivity is falling off. We've also been able to reduce seed usage and seed costs. We've also limited our chemical applications and pesticide applications because of the ability to direct place it right where we want it. And it's been a wonderful thing for our farm, and something that when I came back 12 years ago would have never envisioned. It's amazing the advances that have taken place in just the short period of time.
Phil Lempert:
19:50
I want to move to drones. I know you use drones to monitor yields and productivity. Tell us what got you started with drone technology and what it has enabled you to do.
Geoff Ruth:
20:00
Well, the drone was just more out of curiosity and a young 26-year-old brain wanting to go out and fly and experience what that was like. You know, we've seen huge advances in that as well. A lot of what we still use it for today is just visual scouting, flying the drone after hail storms, rainstorms, figuring out where we have some pesticide problems, looking for areas in our fields that we can then physically go and walk to and investigate. It is also a huge tool for us and sharing our story. Not anybody gets to look at our operation from the air. And so, when you can see the machines going through the field and you get a sense of the size and the scope and the productivity of everything that we're doing, I think it just adds that story of what agriculture is about today.
Phil Lempert:
20:56
Absolutely. Now, I know that you check the weather forecast every night before you go to sleep. Can using a drone help to deal with weather events, especially flooding, which seems to be the norm this year?
Geoff Ruth:
21:08
Yeah, we've experienced our fair share flooding and unfortunately, there's a lot of people here in Nebraska still kind of rebuilding and trying to figure out what to do going forward. The drone aspect, for us, we use it a lot to look at flooding after that occurs on some of our farms that we use for rental or we rent farms. When we can go back and actually look after those events and see what areas are flooded out, it really gives us an opportunity to go back to that landlord of the person that owns the land that we're renting and say, here's what's occuring on your piece of land, good or bad or otherwise. Maybe this is something that next year when we were negotiating those rental payments, this is something we need to keep in mind because we've had a loss of 10 or 15 acres in this corner of the farm that we wouldn't otherwise really know about if it wasn't for visually seeing it across our yield maps and through our drone footage.
Phil Lempert:
22:04
That's a great negotiating tool, if nothing else. Now you're also partnering with the neighboring dairy farms for fertilizer. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Geoff Ruth:
22:16
Yeah. We are extremely fortunate. We live about a mile as the crow flies from the largest dairy in the state. And as you all know, cows need to eat and cows produced a manure product that we can utilize on our farm. So, we provide that dairy with silage corn and different kinds of forages throughout the year as feed for the cows. We then have irrigation systems soaked into the little lagoons that, throughout the year and throughout the fall and the spring and the growing month, we pump out and pump into our fields, and use essentially a free form of fertilizer.
Phil Lempert:
22:59
Well, just you got it all together. Thanks for joining us today on Farm, Food, Facts. And thank you for joining us right here on Farm, Food, Facts. For more information on all things food and agriculture, and to listen to our archives, please visit fooddialogues.com under the Programs and Media tab. Until next week.
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