Saturday, December 9, 2023

The unmeasurable moments of farming

Avatar photo
Daniel Eb appreciates the things we stand to lose in the face of automation.
Have a look at this automated all-weather vegetable patch. Now think about watering the vege garden after a long day, with a cold beer, just as the light turns.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the lads ask if farming is more science or art. 

Have you heard of FarmBot? Imagine a vege bed. Now add a robot hovering over it – think Tetris or a rugby stadium spider-cam. This gizmo will sow seeds, water, weed and precision-fertilise plants. Outside of planning the layout from your smartphone, pruning and harvest, the whole process is automated.

I hate the thing. On the surface it ticks many of my practical and ethical boxes. It empowers people to grow some of their own kai. It’s particularly well suited for kids to learn about growing (and in this case technology too). It’s a time-saver in a busy world.  On paper, FarmBot makes a lot of sense. 

But when we break down growing food into digital scripts and procedures, we risk losing the things that make it deeply special. It’s often hard to accurately name these things. They are feelings, gut intuitions and instincts. You can’t measure them. They don’t appear in an app or any report. A lot of us aren’t great at talking about them – either because we don’t have the right words to describe them, or we worry about sounding soft. 

These things can’t be automated. They are only learnt, and earned, with dirty hands, repetition and mistakes. 

To help me write this piece, I asked a few farming friends for their unmeasurable moments of farming. Here’s what they said. 

Navigating a tractor to get the perfect line. Listening from afar to hear an animal in distress. That soft light for just a minute or two before dusk starts. A dog in full flight turning the mob at just the right moment. Measuring distance by eye. The satisfaction of a completed fence. Sadness at putting an animal down. The joy of saving an animal. Slowing down the bike to glance at some natives and thinking “they’re getting there”. Grading tracks with the right fall by eye to ensure water goes in the right direction. Watching water go in the right direction. Sensing the moment when a bull decides it doesn’t actually want to listen to you anymore. The buzz of a woolshed working at its peak. Reading an animal on the move – knowing when to push and when to let it find its way. The little spiel Mum gives when serving up “meat from the farm” to guests. Watching a new dam fill up for the first time. Seeing a kererū in full flight. Knowing what’s wrong with an animal by look and sound. Hearing the land tell you what it needs – a rest or maybe some fert. When your child completes a farm job for the first time. Showing friends and family around the farm. The rush of making a big decision to try something new – knowing it’s a gamble but doing it anyway. 

The right answer to the question “is farming more science or art?” is it’s obviously both. A deep understanding of the relationships between plants, animals and the natural systems we farm with is essential. New agri-tech tools make these relationships visible in language, numbers and concepts we can understand and act on. New products add safety and scale, while often reducing cost and drudgery. Science and technology are undoubtedly a big part of the pathway forward for agriculture. 

But this article is about giving a voice to the other side of the innovation ledger. The art side. It’s an appreciation of the things that we stand to lose in the face of automation. Things like a dulled sixth sense for stock health when we rely too much on data from a collar. It’s the absence of birdsong or watching an animal face the wind because the hedge had to make way for the irrigator. It’s leaving the dog in the kennel or missing a cow’s dodgy leg because we chose to round up using a drone. 

Like with all things in farming and life, it’s about balance. As science and technology move forward ever faster, we also need to learn to talk about and unashamedly love the softer, unspoken and hard-to-measure parts of farming. The art side. 

Because make no mistake about it, these things matter. They are the “why” of farming. They drive good intergenerational decision-making. They are the source of resilience in crisis. They are the story we tell to help people reconnect with farming. 

Two farm writers who have helped me develop an appreciation for the art behind farming are Wendell Berry and James Rebanks. I think they would appreciate one of my favourite moments – one that no Tetris gizmo will ever take from me: watering the vege garden after a long day, with a cold beer, just as the light turns. 

People are also reading