Robotic farms may be a future for agriculture

Strategian Science is based in Iowa, USA–a region well-known for modern agricultural productivity.  Unlike the often promoted image of the happy and prosperous farm family, the reality is corporate.  There are fewer and fewer true family farms.  To survive in agriculture today often means corporate ownership of huge tracts of land tended by tenant farmers–a kind of modern throwback to a feudal arrangement.

A related and chronic problem in the U.S. today is the lack of agricultural workers; “the number of field and crop laborers available to farms has been rapidly declining” since the early 2000’s.  That has been very expensive to the U.S. economy in terms of lost farm production and revenue, plus the loss of revenue and jobs in related industries like trucking, marketing, and manufacturing.  Farm laborers are often immigrants; immigration crackdowns and harsh political rhetoric have greatly lowered the flow of new farm workers, and U.S.-born workers are not taking their place.

To meet this challenge, a company called Iron Ox is developing a largely automated indoor hydroponic facility where robots overseen by software replace human workers to grow, tend, and harvest a variety of leafy greens.  The production of the initial indoor facility may be comparable to an “outdoor farm that might be five times bigger.”

The potential of smaller, intensive, indoor automated growing facilities could solve two challenges–“the shortage of agricultural workers and the distances that fresh produce currently has to be shipped.”  Robotics here may not eliminate human jobs so much as fill existing gaps in the human workforce.  Plus, the smaller size of these growing facilities allows placing them “close to urban areas … [which] will enable stores to choose vegetables fresher than those that had to travel thousands of miles to get there.”

Read the article (Erin Winick, MIT Technology Review, October 3, 2018).

For more information about robotics, job automation, and its impacts, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

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