Have you heard about Smart farming? What was it before? Stupid farming?

This post can be summed up by two words: WORDS MATTER. So what has this got to do with farming….read on but first….by the way I put 2 spaces after each sentence.

Side note: I must apologize for not posting more consistently on a weekly basis. I have been preoccupied with getting the work done to grow food. You know planting seed trays, preparing garden beds, organizing the plantings, watering seedlings, transplanting seedlings, and weeding, weeding, weeding etc… It is a full-time job for the most part, and it is physically demanding especially since I haven’t done it for more than one year so that at the end of the day I am done, only having energy to do some netflixing (is that a word yet? If not then I am proclaiming it to be one now). It certainly isn’t that I don’t have thoughts swimming in my head that I want to put down on the proverbial paper. Of course these thoughts pertain to farming as this is what is taking all my attention these days.

And just to forewarn you – this is a long post. This was not my intention but it came to be putting together all my current farming thoughts. I hope you can follow my train of thought. This is where I am at besides being thick in the weeds!

While overseas doing the volunteer international development work in Barbados, I stumbled across the term smart farming, also referred to as precision agriculture. I was like what is this? So of course I promptly did the google search. I discovered that Dalhousie University at their agricultural campus in Truro was holding a 2 day seminar on this topic in March. I was like yes, something I can attend and learn some new stuff about farming. But then I did my research on the topic generally and looked over the agenda and speakers for the seminar. I was then oh no, I am sooooo not interested.

From the information posted on Dal’s website: “Workshop participants will include individuals from government, high value crop producers, processors, academia, private agricultural machinery companies, engineers and non-governmental organizations that work on or interested in the sustainable development and adoption of smart precision agriculture technologies.” https://www.dal.ca/faculty/agriculture/extended-learning/SmartFarming.html

Hmmm. I don’t know about you but where were the regular farmers in this? I guess some of them would be in the high value crop producers category. And maybe some in the NGO, e.g. associations representing farmers, but otherwise this appeared to be about big ag and many of the non-farmer players, the ones who are seeking to make $ off the backs of the on the ground labour – the farmers!

Here’s the seminar objectives:

To learn about the collective experience of smart precision agriculture technologies, in particular what has been successful in comparable jurisdictions of North America
To provide a networking/learning opportunity for seminar participants
To address the economic and environmental issues associated with the development and adoption of precision agriculture technologies
To study the potential commercialization opportunities for smart farming technologies
To provide regulatory officials with the most current information on best practices for this emerging sector”

And again from the posted seminar info:

Also known as Precision Agriculture, sustainable smart farming helps farmers to make production systems more efficient to reduce cost of production. The implementation of practical smart agriculture technologies which will allow corrective cultural practices on an as-needed basis, maximize farm profitability, minimize environmental impacts and ultimately led to a more sustainable industry. With an overall goal to advance the sustainable development and adoption of smart precision agriculture technologies in Atlantic Canada, the focus will be on how to integrate these technologies into current production systems so proper management decisions can be made to improve crop productivity and reduce agrochemical use” (that’s good but of course this is in the name of saving $).

Most of this sounds all well and fine. I am always looking to try to do things more efficiently so I can save some of my time and energy as there are only so many hours in the day to get the majority outdoor farming work done. And of course because farming is a 24/7 365 day a year job if you are doing it as a full-time business. Disclaimer: I am not farming full-time at this time and I anticipate I won’t ever again. I have written before that farming is not my thing. Maybe if I was 20 years younger…

So what is smart farming/precision agriculture? Well wouldn’t you know it smart farming is usually referred as sustainable smart farming. I was like what????

Side note: There are too many times now where terms which are referring to the ecology, mother nature, the (natural) environment (including air, water, soil), are now used in the business world. The latest one is the use of the term ecosystem to refer to for example the practices within a company. WTF?? I know business types are good at coming up with new concepts, phrases, models, etc… all trying to make another buck on a so-called new idea. I guess I feel that using ecological terms in this case the business field is akin to environmental appropriation, analogous to cultural appropriation and it pisses me off. I hope this makes sense.

In principle I have nothing against technology, that is when the term technology is used accurately to refer to everything from the wheel to toilet paper to the kitchen sink to the computer. Usually when folks use the term technology nowadays they are referring to some electronic read computer technology. Now I do have an issue with some of this technology. As is ALWAYS the case, there are unintended consequences with the introduction and use of such technology, technology which is meant to help us but then has some detrimental ‘surprise’ impact. Don’t get me started on the technology of cell phones.

Now, perhaps not surprisingly, at the same time I came across Climate Smart Agriculture. As could perhaps be expected this was about adapting agriculture to climate change, with food security and sustainable development being key pillars underpinning this strategy.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) may be defined as an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural development under the new realities of climate change (Lipper et al. 2014). 1 The most commonly used definition is provided by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which defines CSA as “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation) where possible, and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”. In this definition, the principal goal of CSA is identified as food security and development (FAO 2013a; 2 Lipper et al. 2014 1); while productivity, adaptation, and mitigation are identified as the three interlinked pillars necessary for achieving this goal.” https://csa.guide/csa/what-is-climate-smart-agriculture

  1. Productivity: CSA aims to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes from crops, livestock and fish, without having a negative impact on the environment. This, in turn, will raise food and nutritional security. A key concept related to raising productivity is sustainable intensification

  2. Adaptation: CSA aims to reduce the exposure of farmers to short-term risks, while also strengthening their resilience by building their capacity to adapt and prosper in the face of shocks and longer-term stresses. Particular attention is given to protecting the ecosystem services which ecosystems provide to farmers and others. These services are essential for maintaining productivity and our ability to adapt to climate changes.

  3. Mitigation: Wherever and whenever possible, CSA should help to reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This implies that we reduce emissions for each calorie or kilo of food, fibre and fuel that we produce. That we avoid deforestation from agriculture. And that we manage soils and trees in ways that maximizes their potential to acts as carbon sinks and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Now that was something I could get behind, but I would look to the actual farmers doing the on the ground work for ideas to adapt for example cultivation practices or selection of varieties that could withstand more temperature variations. These methods of selecting seeds from the ‘best’ plants is not at all new. Farmers have been doing this technology for thousands of years. Farmers are smart, they don’t need electronic technology to tell them how to do this.

Ever since I first decided to begin a farming business in 2015, I researched everything farming in the province of Nova Scotia, and to a lesser extent that of Canada. One topic I would research was funding for agricultural activities, especially start ups. I would be looking for grants but these were rare. The vast bulk of funding is in the form of loans, or rather debt. Sometimes there was matching funding programs where you would receive a grant but you needed to contribute an equivalent or greater amount of personal monies in order to qualify for the grant. In principle there is nothing wrong with this. I can appreciate that one should not expect the government to provide ‘free’ money to farmers. However it isn’t that simple.

In my view, farming is not like other industries viz-a-viz its importance to humanity. We need food to live so the role of farmers is supremely important since we can’t all be farmers. With what has transpired in this sector with industrialization concomitant with capitalism to its detriment, farming has been transformed into a business like any other, e.g. animals are viewed as purely commodities, the primary producer get the least amount of financial benefit/compensation for their labour, it is an industry sustained by debt which sustains the financial industry. The worst is how we now have venture capitalists buying up farmland and hiring farmers as (slave) labour to do the work with wages often amounting to less than minimum wage.

Now when I was going through my mid-life career crisis I considered going back to school to finally get a masters degree (only have the bachelors and doctoral degrees), and to finally study something I was passionate about but could also have good employment prospects upon completion of the studies – always the ever practical thinker. I did look at areas of study related to agriculture, e.g. veterinary sciences because of my love of animals, and this is when I came across the field of agroecology. I did not know what that was. I mean I knew what ecology was but what was agroecology.

So what is it? “Agroecology [is]‘the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems’. [It] has three facets. These are:

  1. 1. a scientific discipline involving the holistic study of agro-ecosystems, including human and environmental elements

  2. 2. a set of principles and practices to enhance the resilience and ecological, socio-economic and cultural sustainability of farming systems

  3. 3. a movement seeking a new way of considering agriculture and its relationships with society.”

    https://learn.mesaprogram.org/module/what-is-agroecology/

The key term for me is holistic. Agriculture is not just an economic activity. It is also a way of life. It is about mother nature – the ecology, the social – humans, the economic – livelihood, and the political – management & coordination.

I like holistic perspectives, the inclusion of the social, environmental, economic and political. Yes things are more complicated this way but seeing aspects of life through all these dimensions provides a more accurate reflection of reality.

To me this agroecology is juxtaposed to smart farming. In my reading between the lines, the latter is really about big business and high tech solutions where researchers (private for profit industry and academia) would be seeking to develop products/services which would generate income for said firms all supposedly benefiting farmers read big ag.

Consider as an example the automated milking machines that are now widely used in dairy farms. Here in NS where dairy farms are small by comparison to other provinces, say a herd of 50-200 heads of cattle, they have been used for more than 5 years now. You can always tell such facilities since they are of course newer buildings, the buildings don’t look like barns, there are automatic shutters for windows which can be set to open/close partially or fully (I guess you can say that the cows get fresh air?). The cows can simply line up by themselves and get milked whenever they want. I just don’t know how cows actually learn this but I don’t consider them stupid animals so I guess they do get it eventually. Of course monitoring of the actual computer system and of course the animals is always necessary. It just takes less people to do this. In the end you get more milk as cows can go get milked more than the traditional twice a day. I did learn of a cow losing their tail in the process. I was like the cow needs their tail to swish off flies & other bugs on their bodies. Poor thing. I wonder how soon she went off to slaughter for your hamburger.

Getting back to funding of agriculture endeavours for the moment – stay with me. I wanted to highlight 4 programs:

1) There is in Nova Scotia the FarmWorks Investment Co-operative Limited which “was incorporated as a for-profit Co-operative on May 18, 2011 by an association of community leaders concerned about social, economic and cultural needs. FarmWorks promotes and provides strategic and responsible community investment in food production and distribution in order to increase access to a sustainable local food supply for all Nova Scotians. There is significant potential for agriculture and food production to benefit health, employment, and the Provincial economy. FarmWorks [uses] Community Economic Development Investment Fund (CEDIF) [program] to enable Nova Scotians annually to purchase common shares in a diversified portfolio of businesses that yield meaningful financial returns on investments. These investments provide subordinated debt financing for farms, food processors, and value-added food producers, helping to increase the viability and sustainability of agriculture and the security of a healthy food supply. FarmWorks creates meaningful partnerships with investors and with loan recipients, with businesses and other lenders. These partnerships contribute to the growth of food-related enterprises across the province. FarmWorks Directors and Advisors identify enterprises that will successfully and sustainably increase production and profitability, and work closely with them to mentor and promote their businesses. Guidelines for measuring and reporting outcomes are in place for supported businesses and for the Board. In Six Offers (Offer open until May 30th) Nova Scotians have invested $1,775,000 to date and that money has been invested in more than 65 businesses and there will soon be more.” http://farmworks.ca/about/

In principle this seems like a great idea.

Next, 2) In Ontario, there is Farmstarts. “For over 10 years, FarmStart has developed and offered flexible programs and services that provided new farmers with the resources, tools, and support necessary to get their businesses off the ground and to thrive.”

At the top of their website was the note: “We will no longer be able to offer our direct programs and services for new farmers, due to the lack of core and sustained program funding.” I was like that’s not good.

Further down the webpage, it stated:”Over the last 10 years, no National or Ontario funding streams or programs have focused on the particular opportunities and challenges facing farm renewal and the needs of a new generation of farmers. Funding that provides capacity and sustainability for critical sector partners and valuable programs and services is immediately needed. We developed a set of recommended policy changes that can support a new generation of Canadian farmers, drawing from our conversations with a wide range of government representatives, farm and non-profit organizations and new farmers themselves.”

They provided recommendations on what was needed for the agricultural sector: “The next Agricultural Policy Framework should include a Farm Renewal and Business Development Pillar with:

  1. Knowledge Programs: Funding training and extension, mentorship, business development and networking opportunities.

  1. Seed Capital: Providing start-up grants, savings and debt forgiveness programs and early stage, high-risk loans.

  1. Farm Transfer Interventions and Farmland Protection: Supporting farmland protection strategies, succession incentives and support, and farmland transfer financing initiatives.

All the above quotes on Farmstart are from http://www.farmstart.ca/

3) Nationally there is the Farm Credit Canada: “FCC is Canada’s leading agriculture lender. We live and breathe Canadian agriculture, agribusiness and agri-food. We support, strengthen and celebrate the industry, and we’re proud of it. We’re a financially self-sustaining federal Crown corporation. FCC reports to Parliament through the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. We lend money and provide other services to primary producers, agri-food operations and agribusinesses that provide inputs or add value to agriculture.” https://www.fcc-fac.ca/en.html

4) As for provincial government funding, every April, the Department of Agriculture in the province publishes the funding programs for the coming season. Such programs have included projects for irrigation, upgrading utilities in barns, clearing of forest to make fields, etc… However, in the past decade, there has been more and more $ allocated to innovation or the use of new technologies.

From the current provincial Dept. of Ag website, the following programs will provide funding:

i) The Advancing Innovative Technologies initiative will support the adoption of new technologies, processes or specialized equipment. Through the assessment, implementation or adoption, all projects should improve farm and industry competitiveness, productivity & profitability.

ii) The Business Advisory Services Program aims to enhance Nova Scotia farms’ and agri-businesses’ ability to be more competitive, manage transition, develop risk management strategies and respond to change. The business advisory services offered under this program will enable the agriculture sector to be proactive in business development decisions.

iii) Market Expansion and Export Readiness Program: The objective of the program is to encourage the agriculture, agri-food industries to expand their current established market share and foster economic growth.

iv) The Soil and Water Sustainability program was developed to assist farms in mitigating on-farm environmental risks for soil and water. In providing assistance for environmental protection projects, this program will recognize the important role the industry plays for healthy soil and water. (now this is great)

v) The [] Missions and Investigative Travel program is to support the agriculture and agri-food industries’ efforts to explore and investigate new market opportunities and innovative farm technologies.

https://novascotia.ca/canadian-agricultural-partnership/

I don’t know about you but again reading between the lines or not, there is a predominant focus on big bucks/big ag, technology, competitiveness and export as the money earners.

Additionally, this year there were some changes to the funding criteria. Up until now, a farm’s income needed to be a minimum of $10,000. This figure has now increased to $30,000. Rightly so, the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) and other similar organizations, e.g. Farmers Market Cooperative of Nova Scotia (FMNS), have alerted their membership and the leadership of these groups have notified the political leadership of their dismay at this change. I was surprised to learn several years ago now, that the majority membership of the NSFA are small scale farmers making under $10,000. I have to say I was shocked by this since I haven’t seen much visible work of any kind on behalf of small scale farmers – but this could just be my lack of years in the industry.

I have always been one to read between the lines. I hope you do too. I have always been amazed that my perception in doing this research/reading was that the funding was in essence targeting larger ‘small’ scale or larger scale agricultural producers. As well, as with other industries, there is this infatuation with export markets, almost assuming that this is the only way to be viable. This is connected to the usual neoliberal focus on the need for perpetual growth, assuming that a business must continue to grow in order to be successful. What’s wrong with reaching stability or in economic parlance a steady state? At the same time the provincial government has articulated its support/concern for food (in)security. Talk about effing lip service. But of course in today’s world of lying politicians and hopium of the masses, this is to be expected.

I am a small scale farmer. However, there is a huge range in this category, from someone like me who makes under $10,000/year in sales, to those $10-30,000, to those who make in excess of $30,000.

Just as a side note, I know no single farm at this time that is financially viable without some off-site employment, usually one adult member of the household bringing in this needed additional income. The few cases that a small scale farm is viable is because they rely on in essence ‘free’ or cheap labour, e.g. interns, apprentices, temporary migrant workers (e.g. from Jamaica or Mexico). This then means that the statistics about farm financial viability are in effect skewed or downright wrong. Determining whether a farm and thus farming is an actual financially viable business must account in the number crunching for these factors. I have not seen this but perhaps this exists somewhere.

Alas we will never qualify for funding. Even if we did we are not interested in carrying any debt. I never plan on making farming my main employment/income thus I will never cross the $10,000 let alone a $30,000 thresh hold. I also have no interest in using new (electronic) technologies. If anything we are much more interested in the technologies of long ago which were not reliant on non-renewable energy sources, but instead on the energy of humans and animals, case in point this year’s (my) Traditional Hemp Production Project.

As for climate change adaptation, we already have this as a major focus in everything we do on our property. For example, we consider our water source and we are fortunate to have the best water of a more or less never ending supply; we are off grid for the bulk of our energy needs so we don’t need to worry about electricity or similar; we have greenhouses built mainly from scavanged material which do not have any source of heat, if need be we could instead woodstove heat; our main source of heat is wood from our land; our current barn does not have power, a ‘new’ barn which will be a shipping container will have solar panels if necessary; we seed save as much as we can, storing lots of seeds; and, of course we farm using organic practices.

Okay I think that’s enough.

Well one thing is pretty clear. I physically can’t do this type of work full-time; the osteo-arthritis I have in my hands & feet are getting worse and providing me with lots of pain! I do like the physical labour but it never ends!

Happy planting.

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