Working on a farm sucks, let’s make robots do it

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I grew up on a piece of abandon farmland in north east Oklahoma. When I turned 11 years old, my family put me behind the wheel of a Kubota tractor and made it my job to manage the property.  For the next 10 years of my life, I would work outdoors 40+ hours a week, from May to September, in the state that holds the record for the hottest summer ever (read more). Many of my friends were farmers and ranchers.  As hard as I worked, I promise you they made my job look easy.

Photo by Stijn Strake on Unsplash

Working on a farm sucks. My firsthand experience taught me to have a great deal of respect for the men and women who sacrifice the best years of their life so others can eat. Most of them are third generation farmers who take personal pride in the work they do every day. They willingly trade their skin, joints, and comfort to ensure our modern lifestyle. The people I knew in Oklahoma spent 40+ years waking up with the sun, working tirelessly all day, and yet still managed to make less money than a McDonalds cashier (read more).

“When this country was founded, 90% of the population were famers – now only 1% have to work the field.”

It’s no surprise to me that the American farmer has all but vanished. When this country was founded, nearly 90% of the available workforce were farmers (read more). Now less than 1% of the working class in the United States has a job on a farm. The work is hard and is appreciated by few. The wages don’t reflect the value brought to society, and most of the profit (if you can call it that) has already been redirected to both ends of the value chain: to the front (companies that make seed and farm equipment) and to the back (grocery stores that make a healthy 30% on produce).

Photo by Nicolas Barbier on Unsplash

There are 3.2 million famers in the United States according to the latest data from the USDA. On average, they are at least 50 years old and sell less than $50k (gross) of product. Most of them have mortgaged their farm in some way or another, and increasingly rely on subsidies and specialized seeds to continue operations. These people are not living glamorous lives, in fact it’s far from it. They work hard to feed the 323 million people in the United States, but hardly expect anything in return.

Data from USDA and US Census Bureau

The US Census Bureau reports that in 2017, gross sales to retail and food services in the Untied States should exceed $5.14 trillion (read more). Meanwhile, the USDA reports gross income to farmers will only reach $409 million (read more). So where is all the money going? Like I said before, not to the famers. In 2016 Bayer agreed to buy seed company Monstanto for $65 billion. John Deer, the tractor company, is currently listed at a market cap of $38 billion. And finally, as many of your heard, Amazon recently acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. The data is in. Food is incredibly valuable to people in the United States, but apparently, the farmers are not. 

Bill Gates has taken a very reasonable position on this topic (read more). Universal Basic Income is likely going to be a solution we will need to consider. Instead of being so caught up in eliminating jobs, we as a country, make the decision to unilaterally eliminate some sector (like farm jobs) and instead, provide each of those farmers a subsidy for the rest of their lives. There are a lot of great ideas for where the money could come from. We could tax the $5.14 trillion industry that the farmers provide. We could tax the multi-billion dollar companies that are already profiting from the farms. Or we could just continue to tax individual Americans that consume the food from these farms. Either way, as noted earlier – the value is there. We may not be ready for it now (as a country), but as automation takes hold in many of our industries, it is something we are going to have to continue to consider with more and more seriousness.

Finally, let’s talk about robots doing dirty jobs.

Autonomous tractor concept by Case IH

Robots are a beautiful invention. As we are now at the dawn of what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution, it is worth noting that this story is very similar to one you’ve already heard before. As a people, we are ever driven to expand and improve the quality of life for ourselves and our posterity. Over the last two centuries, we have experienced a number of mechanical and electrical inventions that have transformed what we as a people are capable of. From the manufacturing line to the internet, these inventions have largely automated many of the menial and repetitive jobs that took up the time of our most productive and capable people.

I believe that the 3.3 million people working on farms right now are some of the most innovative, hard working, and ambitious people I’ve ever met.

I believe that the 3.3 million people working on farms right now are some of the most innovative, hard working, and ambitious people I’ve ever met. I dream of a day when those people can work on some of societies larger problems that could do with a fresh-dose of grit, determination, and continuous invention. The technology needed to automate farming is here. If not today; certainly over the next decade. It’s time we stop asking people to do these dirty, back-breaking jobs and get them working where they are needed most.

If you’re interested in helping me solve this problem, I would recommend you pick-up a copy of Industries of the Future by Alec Ross then give me a call.  Enabling people to deliver their greatest value to society is a personal mission of mine, and one the world could certainly use your help with. For those of you interested in autonomous farming, I would recommend you keep an eye on Case IH and John Deer as they work through the nuances of implementing many of these technologies.

See you on the other side.

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