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Smart farms: feeding the world's 7 billion minds

250 billion, 588 billion, 2.2 trillion. No, those aren't the latest government deficit figures. According to various sources such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Food Policy Research Institute, those numbers represent the weight in pounds of fish, meat, fruits and vegetables the world consumes on an annual basis. Projecting out to 2030, as a planet we'll consume more than 344 billion pounds of fish, 808 billion pounds of meat and 3.1 trillion pounds of fruits and vegetables.

How will we meet that demand and get it right? Massive industrialization brought overdeveloped, polluted and traffic-congested cities. In a similar way, heavily industrialized farming brings soil depletion, water pollution and a food chain tainted with modified genes, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and other toxins.

Fish, meat, fruits and vegetables are living organisms. That makes producing them far different from mining raw materials and shaping them into automobiles, highways, skyscrapers, household appliances and electronic gadgets. A laptop assembly line can be shut down if a parameter drifts out of range. But crops and livestock have to be kept living, breathing, eating, growing and reproducing 24/7/365.

In other words, farming is as knowledge-intensive as it gets. It's both complex and complicated, with lots of moving parts, with a pinch of risk and uncertainty thrown in to make it both potentially rewarding and equally frustrating.

Innumerable dots need to be connected: GPS and mobility; energy; water; fertilizers and pest control; futures trading and commerce; tax and regulatory regimes; environmental protection; soil conditions; land topography; storage, transportation and logistics; facilities and equipment; labor relations and availability; sudden changes in weather and climate; invasive species. I'm sure I've missed a few.

Timing is everything, as are volume and variety. Take the avocado farmer, for example. When to pick is critical-you only get one shot. And you'd better have enough pickers lined up and ready to go. After you pick, shelf life is extremely short, compared to other fruits.

To reduce guesswork, avocado (indeed all) farmers need to draw from a vast array of data sources, some internally generated and others publicly available. They analyze and extrapolate, but rely mostly on good old-fashioned knowledge and intuition, building upon decades of hard work and trial and error. When they dare to innovate, it's carefully balanced against the risks associated with a "one-shot-and-you're-done" business. Add to the mix the need for maintaining cash flow and profitability, humane working conditions, sound business ethics and environmental quality, and what you've got is not so much a farm but something more closely resembling a knowledge enterprise.

Yet, we don't really have a robust, systematic approach for capturing, sharing, applying and growing knowledge about farming. At least not on a grand scale.

Innovation and knowledge sharing in rural America

Andy McIntire, a cattle farmer near my home in Clarke County, Va., discovered a better way to make hay by not making hay. He says in effect, "The cattle eat it, so why not let them make it?"

Instead of having a fixed fence around the perimeter of his 170-acre cattle farm, he built a "variable" fence, which is moved slightly every day, closely controlling the grazing area. That results in more uniform grazing. In addition, the cattle deposit their waste more evenly, completely eliminating the need for fertilizers.

The real secret—the knowledge "nugget," if you will—is that by using this novel approach to grazing, McIntire's cattle eat 60 percent of the available grass and trample about 30 percent. But the 10 percent that's left grows back stronger and lasts longer into the colder months, reducing the amount of hay he needs to produce (a labor-intensive, back-breaking process).

"The grass grows back dark green, with a shiny gloss to it," he told a local news reporter. What he didn't say was that not having to pay for fertilizer means more of that other green stuff will stay in his wallet rather than making its way out the door.

Like a good citizen of the knowledge economy, McIntire didn't keep his newfound discovery to himself. He shared it with other farmers at a periodic gathering called "Forage Field Day," an event jointly sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech and other organizations.

At the same meeting, an NRCS specialist showed attendees how to use a rainfall simulator and other tools to improve soil moisture, fertility and production. A few months later, another local farmer shared how he's using solar panels to bring his farm's monthly electric bill close to zero.

If valuable knowledge like this is being created, shared and applied locally, imagine what could be accomplished on a regional, national or global level. Those trillions of additional pounds of food we'll be needing less than two decades from now might actually be within our capacity to produce on a sustainable basis.

Rebuilding our farms, our cities and our world

A smart world needs a smart, nutritional diet. Whether plucking items off a grocery store shelf or walking miles for a jug of water in a drought-stricken country, we need to begin the transition now to a global system of smart, sustainable agriculture.

Here are three simple steps toward making that transformation happen:

  • Stop over-mechanizing something that eats and breathes—treat natural systems differently from artificial systems.
  • Reduce the randomness and uncertainty in farming—this is where data analytics combined with knowledge management can result in powerful and sustainable gains in yield, productivity and quality.
  • Bring smart city models to farms and rural populations and vice versa—by borrowing the best from each, we can help create a more sustainable living environment for everyone.

Examples of the third step are already underway, such as turning abandoned warehouses into tilapia ponds, or planting herb gardens on the rooftops of grocery stores, significantly reducing or even eliminating transportation costs.

The world's food supply is extremely vulnerable to sudden disruptions from war, disease, natural disasters or financial crises. In this column, previous articles about smart cities and economic resilience stressed the importance of maintaining social cohesion. We have seen repeatedly that when people suddenly have their food supplies cut off, they take to the streets and social cohesion breaks down. We need to make robust food production and distribution a global priority. It won't solve all of our problems, but taking care of the basics is a good start.

The prospect of a world of 7 billion minds connecting, collaborating and innovating brings many challenges along with it. If you're a KM'er looking for new fields to plow, take a close look at the agricultural sector. It sure beats all those document-intensive projects you've been working on, and you'll be making a real impact on the world as well. 

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