Today’s episode is about a future where nobody works on farms anymore, all farming is done by robots. Is it possible? Probably not. But it might be closer than you think.
Today’s episode features:
- Curtiz Marez, a professor at UC San Diego and the author of Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance which is the book that inspired this episode.
- Sarah Mock, a former Wyoming farm kid turned farm researcher with the Farmers Business Network.
- JJ Price, the global marketing manager at Spread, a lettuce factory in Japan.
- My grandma. She doesn’t have a website.
We start this episode with some history, going back to the 1934 World Fair which featured the Farm Machinery Hall, full all kinds of machines: harvesters, threshers, cultivators ,corn pickers, mowers, tractors and mechanical cotton harvesters. There was even a milking machine on display, set up to milk an animatronic cow that could moo, switch its tail, turn its head, wink, chew cud and breathe. The cow was even rigged up with an internal set of tubes to make milk come out from the milker.
It’s easy to look at some of these future predictions from the 1930’s and laugh, but Professor Marez says that at the time there were some serious political undertones here. In the 1930’s, farm workers in California were largely migrants, and they were starting to organize and form unions and starting to demand rights and protections. At the same time, you started to have this moral panic, in California in particular, that the influx of Mexican workers stoked the racist fears of white families who thought that their women and children might be in danger. And this tension only got worse through the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as workers rights movements got stronger.
In response, some of these companies developed “farm bots” that they presented as mechanical alternatives to the so called “dangerous” Mexican men. In the 1930’s International Harvester Company sent a robot called “Harvey Harvester” to a variety of state fairs. Harvey looks crude today, but the idea was that he was a robot that could be controlled remotely by his master. I don’t think Harvey actually worked, but he was outfitted with a metal sombrero, and often photographed looking quite harmless next to pretty white girls. In the 1960’s Harvey got an upgrade and became Tracto the Talking Robot, and was often photographed holding white children.
Another interesting thing about the 1930’s World Fair is that unlike a lot of the future predictions that it made, it was actually pretty spot on when it came to farming. Here’s some of what the ad for the company selling the radio controlled farm at the 1934 World’s Fair said:
“Will the farmer of the future be able to sit on his front porch while directing all his farm work? Will it be possible to sit in an office in Chicago or New York and direct the operation of fleets of tractors throughout the world? Will it be possible by these methods to operate farm properties in both hemispheres and gather harvests in practically every month of the year? These are a few of the unanswerable questions with which the weird spectacle of a driverless, yet perfectly controlled tractor, excites the imagination.”
Well, today these questions are answerable, and the answer is… yes. Sarah Mock explains that today, almost every farmer in the United States has a self-driving tractor. Farms are incredibly high tech, full of sensors and automation and millions of dollars worth of equipment.
Mock then explains that the future of farming could go one of two ways: bigger or smaller. Companies could, instead of dropping millions on a single huge piece of tech, deploy a hoard of smaller robots, each responsible for their own little patch of the farm. One company working on this kind of thing is called Rowbots,
Or, Mock says, things could go the opposite way and go huge. The USDA recently tested a gigantic sensor on a huge beam suspended over the farm that could scan and diagnose each plant.
And that 1930’s image of the command center, the farmer in his glass house orchestrating everything without stepping foot outside, that’s basically possible right now. Check out this John Deer commercial from the 2012.
But not every country has the kind of land that the US does, which means that some of the innovation in farming and automation doesn’t look like self-driving tractors. Instead, it looks like giant indoor farms like Spread.
Spread is a company that grows lettuce in highly controlled and highly automated indoor farms. Right now they’ve got one facility, and they’re working on building another. Recently, they got a lot of press about that new facility, which a ton of news outlets called the world’s first “robot run farm.” A lot of these stories claimed that Spread’s facility would be completely staffed by robots. That’s not true. There are still humans involved in planting, growing and harvesting this lettuce. Humans will plant the seeds, and put them into the rows at the beginning of the process. And humans will also harvest and trim and package the lettuce at the end of the process.
But Spread isn’t the solution for everything. They only grow lettuce, and as much as I love lettuce we’ll probably eat other things too in the future. Vertical automated farms aren’t going to be able to grow every kind of vegetable, and we haven’t even gotten into animals and animal products (assuming our future doesn’t wind up being a vegan one).
And our special guest this episode is my grandma, who tells us what it was like to be there when the milking machines first showed up on farms, and when tractors started replacing horses. She actually says that nobody really worried about being replaced by robots at the time, which was interesting to me.
We close out the episode with a conversation about a truly automated future, what would it be like if we really went full robot? We’ve got some sci-fi examples for this, but my favorite version is one that complicates the questions a little. It’s called Sleep Dealer and it’s a movie from 2008 about migrant workers, politics and robots. Here’s the trailer:
You can rent Sleep Dealer for a couple of bucks online, and I recommend it, it’s dark but really fascinating.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. Special thanks to Brent Rose for playing our tour guide. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.