Our relationship with food is complicated, and it’s getting worse.
We are at a pivotal point where the disrepair of our food systems will forever shape entire regions of our world. To understand why, we must examine the struggles facing our farmers.
In early April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that there are 2.04 million farms and ranches in the country, down 3.2 percent from 2012. The average farm income is $43,053, and just 43.6 percent of farms had positive net cash farm income in 2017.
Farmers frequently work 80-hour weeks and carry a crushing amount of uncertainty. Weather, pests, climate change, legislation, and other factors can devastate a small farm overnight. Fewer young people are entering into the industry, and the average age of farmers continues to rise (it is now 57.5 years, up 1.2 years from 2012). There have also been numerous recent reports regarding the mental health, suicide risk, and well-being of our farmers.
We need our farmers. We need to eat. So what can we do?
We must have a coordinated approach that is driven by the public and private sectors, including corporations, NGOs, and academic support.
I have worked closely with researchers in the Netherlands, whose systems were recently profiled in a National Geographic article titled “This Tiny Country Feeds the World.” The Dutch have aggressively embraced a new generation of sustainable, data-driven farming techniques to monitor everything from soil to water and nutrients. Crops grow faster, better and more efficiently — all with far fewer resources and zero indoor chemical pesticides.
Through a groundswell of support, farmers were allowed to utilize more than half of the nation’s land for agriculture and horticulture. The Netherlands is now second only to the U.S. in food exports by value, yet it is a region the size of Rhode Island.
While many of these systems use cutting-edge technologies, they embrace an integration with traditional farming techniques. Farmers are growing food in economically and environmentally sustainable ways and are valued members of the community.
How are we measuring our farms? How are we tracking the health of our crops and our farmers? Many states have numerous acres of unused land that could be converted into agricultural service, but we simply don’t have enough farmers.
We have the opportunity to collect substantive data that can guide our farmers to better outcomes. Through this, we can perpetuate a culture of knowledge transfer and education, giving hope to the next generation of farmers.
We have the opportunity to learn from countries facing similar challenges that are now disrupting what we know about farming. We can collect the appropriate data to make accurate, coordinated and informed decisions that will redesign our food value chain.
As the popular saying goes: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Many states have ambitious goals to increase their local food supply. Now we need a concrete plan to make them into reality.
Vincent Kimura is the CEO of Smart Yields, a Honolulu-based agriculture technology company. Smart Yields helps connect farmers, researchers, and their communities through real-time analytics gathered from a long-range network of integrated, state-of-the-art sensors — managed through a mobile app.