Where will our food come from in 2040? The answer may surprise you. We may be on the brink of an agricultural revolution that will forever change our relationship to our food and how it is grown. These changes will sweep across the globe and may occur fastest in California. Our CoHousing communities need to be ready.
Agricultural Workers Continue to Decline
Fewer people work in agriculture than ever before. We rely on fewer people because farm productivity has steadily increased. Today direct on-farm employment accounts for 2.6 million jobs, or 1.3% of U.S. employment. About 1.1 million are hired agricultural workers. The wages paid to these workers is about $25 billion annually. Source: Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/
200 years ago, 5 out of every 6 Americans was occupied in agriculture!
70 years ago there were 2.5 million agricultural workers employed on farms. Today there are about half as many. Less than 1.5% of our population grows the food that we eat.
Depending on the season, between 1/3 and 1/2 of all farmworkers in America reside in California, or roughly 500,000 – 800,000 farmworkers. Approximately 75% of California’s farmworkers are undocumented. Approximately 33% are women. You can learn more about these workers at the Farmworker Justice website.
The production of fruits and vegetables is labor-intensive, with labor representing 20% to 40% of production costs. California growers paid $11.4 billion in wages in 2014, making labor costs over 20% of farm sales. Almost 45% of these labor costs were for support activities for crop production, primarily payments to farm labor contractors, custom harvesters, and other non-farm businesses such as those that transport workers to farms.
In recent years the loss of crops due to labor shortages has increased in all parts of the USA. In 2020, the agricultural labor force is under intense pressure due to shortages of migrant workers and lately, the COVID-19 pandemic. When crops are ripe the need for harvesting labor is immediate and increasingly difficult to meet.
Rise of the Farming Machines
While the total number of farmworkers declines, the number of farming machines increases. The most rapid growth of farming technology is in fully-automated planting, harvesting, and processing equipment. These are robots built for crop-specific work, and their numbers are increasing exponentially: Source: https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/agricultural-robots-market
California’s $45 billion agriculture industry produces about half of the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. If current trends continue, the total money spent on agricultural robotics in the state will become larger than the money paid to human workers before 2040.
Agricultural robot shipments are expected to grow from 60,000 units today to more than 727,000 in 2025, according to market research firm Tractica. Many “Agtech” engineering companies developing this equipment are in California, with much of the research and development taking place in Silicon Valley and Monterey County.
In the Salinas Valley, California, for example, there has been swift adoption of machines that thin and weed lettuce and other crops. New technologies have also been developed for transplanting, for example, PlantTape. More efficient means of irrigating crops has been implemented, for example, using permanently set sprinkler pipe and single-use drip tape. The use of drones to measure and maintain the health of individual plants is now widespread there.
The adoption of new technology could occur very rapidly. For example, in 1963 about 1% of California’s industrial tomato harvest was picked by about 60 machines. By 1968, there were over 1,450 machines across the state delivering 95%. Almost as quickly, tomato growing shifted geographies, moving from the small fields of the Sacramento Delta to towns around Fresno, in order to find the flat land and consistent irrigation possibilities required by those machines.
There have been many historical examples which show that once the crossover point is reached where more money is spent on machines than on human labor, the number of agricultural workers on a specific crop rapidly declines.
Already 80% of California grapes are harvested mechanically. Mechanical harvesting is incredibly efficient because the grapes go from being on the vine to crushed and into a chilled tank within the span of a half an hour. When grapes are picked by hand, that process takes a minimum of four hours. The cost of harvesting cherries mechanically is half that of manual picking. There are now Agtech companies working to solve the problem of how to plant and harvest ALL crops.
Two trends are driving us towards a future when nearly all produce will be planted, tended, and harvested by machines: the increasing efficiency of agricultural robotic machines and the growing difficulty of hiring seasonal farm workers.
While the supply of agricultural labor is declining and becoming more expensive, the return on investment of advanced “Agtech” is growing.
How will this trend affect CoHousing communities?
The mechanization of farming and gardening will soon reach a tipping point of efficiency. It will happen similar to the trend of adoption of solar electrical panels. Once the cost of small scale agtech farming is low enough and the success rate is high enough, on-site food production will become feasible. This could be managed by CoHousing group members or by local contractors.
The greatest benefit of gardening is the freshness and nutrition of just-picked fruits and vegetables. Within an hour of picking, the aroma of a fresh tomato begins to diminish. But produce sold in U.S. supermarkets is shipped an average 2000 miles from the farm it was grown, so it must be picked well before it is ripe in order to last weeks before it is consumed. Most Americans have become accustomed to this, and many have never eaten vegetables picked in the same day.
When fresh tomatoes, squash, and peas straight from the garden are served in a CoHousing common meal, everyone will want more! When crunchy salad greens with garden herbs are put on the table people will be asking for second helpings.
Currently, gardening on small lots is very labor intensive. Using “master gardener” methods requires constant intervention to solve problems with irrigation, fertilization, insect pests, predator animals, and plants which fail to thrive. It is rewarding work that leads to a special relationship with the earth. But it often fails for mysterious reasons. Full-time farmers develop the knowledge and skills to prevail, but recreational gardeners are often unable to cope. That will soon change.
Robotic systems will introduce sensors measuring hundreds of variables which will be tracked and analyzed. The key value of all computerized robotics systems is to act quickly on patterns of data to solve problems. A human gardener cannot be aware of all the stresses a plant is feeling and how to solve them, but an Agtech machine can.
We may be on the brink of an agricultural revolution, but robotic gardening is not yet ready for regular use. Early adopters should expect to spend double the time on their gardens: growing their plants, and also fixing problems with their expensive new tools. That will rapidly change over the next decade. Small scale systems will soon have rapid return on our time and money investment by allowing fresh produce to be reliably grown onsite. Small scale growing systems will match the needs of a CoHousing community.
Truckee River CoHousing members include a number of avid gardeners, technologists, and “makers.” We will be well-positioned to successfully grow fresh produce onsite. RSVP to join us for a virtual or onsite tour here.
This article is part 1 of a series “Planning for CoHousing 2040.”
Truckee River CoHousing is a grassroots group of North Tahoe locals collaboratively building an ecologically-designed community at 10925 West River Street, in Truckee, California. The community features private homes, shared community space, and exceptional access to mountain and river open space. To learn more, visit https://www.cohotruckee.org and RSVP for a virtual site tour or one of the group’s public events.