Small Farmers are Mixing Old Equipment with New Tech
The next generation of farmers use a smorgasbord of tools to get the job done.
Before Leo Sanchez will talk about his farm, he has to ask: “Do you like the website?” The owner of Lazy Millennial Farms designed it himself. It took a Squarespace subscription and two months of intermittent work to get things up and running.
“I like it,” I say. The leafy greens—lovingly raised and carefully Instagrammed—look great. Online registration and payment for the farm’s CSA, which guarantees customers a share of the seasonal produce, makes the whole thing easy. And instead of simply clicking “confirm,” the newsletter subscription button reads “KALE YEAH.”
Satisfied with my response, Sanchez is ready to get down to business. The 26-year-old farmer launches into an animated description of the density of his lettuce beds; the value of veganics, a nascent method of cultivating plants without animal-based fertilizers; and the ceaseless, indefatigable weeds, which will happily crowd out Sanchez’s crops if he doesn’t kill them first.
Besides the name, there’s a lot about Sanchez and his Salinas, California farm that seems unusual. At about an acre, it’s small—smaller than some people’s backyards. The national average farm size is around 440 acres. At 26, Sanchez is a young proprietor. Since the 1980s, the average age of farmers has risen in every USDA Agricultural Census. Currently, it hovers around 58 years old. And Sanchez’s constant tinkering with everything from seeding techniques out in the field to the promotion and sale of his produce online is evidence of an experimental approach, not dictated by the confines of conventional, large-scale agriculture.
While farming is often difficult for both the body and mind, Sanchez says he and many of his fellow young farmers (roughly defined as farmers under 35) are motivated by a desire to set a new standard for agriculture. Many of them are starting small with the hope of refining their climate-conscious practices and slowly working to scale them over time. To do this, young farmers are employing a bevy of technologies, some new and some… not so new.
In 2017, venture capitalists and others invested approximately $1.5 billion dollars in the “ag tech” industry, according to TechCrunch. Areas of focus included artificial intelligence, which could increase automation and lower costs on large-scale farms, as well as “biologicals,” or natural supplements to crop production, which international conglomerates like Monsanto hope will provide environmentally-friendly alternatives to its heavy-duty chemical products like Roundup.
But many of these products aren’t within reach for small-scale farmers like Sanchez. Those with just a few acres have to think a little more creatively to get the job done.
Lindsey Lusher Shute is the executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an organization she helped to establish upstate New York in 2010. With chapters now in nearly 30 states (including the District of Columbia), the coalition seeks to connect new farmers to training, land, and jobs. It also advances a policy platform, which encompasses things like helping young farmers navigate student loans. She says that the young farmers she knows are guided by their love of agriculture—and aided by their technology savvy. To find inexpensive and appropriately-sized tools, they collaborate, innovate, and retrofit whatever’s available to them.
Retrofit what already exists
Many farmers look to the history books for solid if somewhat forgotten advice. Lusher Shute and her husband own a Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor, which looks more like a neon pedal boat than farm equipment. But they’ve turned their machine, which was constructed sometime between 1948 and 1955, into an electric vehicle. “We see a lot of this hybrid[ization]—of taking the best from previous generations of farming,” she says.