The world is changing fast. Our population is still exploding like a Ukrainian power plant. Our energy needs far exceed what we can make without beating the earth into a nuclear winter, and food security is making farmers look like our only potential saviours 30 years from now.
Farming is changing at lightning speed. What will farmers be doing in 2030? After all, it is not that far away. Mostly, farmers will be reacting to what will be current issues of the day. For example, the world population is estimated be 8 billion by 2030. Not only will farmers of 2030 have to work out how to feed all these people, but they will have to work out a way to do it in a low-carbon or no-carbon way, while restoring the environment to make up for past mistakes. It’s a big job. So if your children say they want to be farmers, here are the areas which they will probably be going into as farmers of the future.
According to Farming Futures, a British think-tank that helps farmers to future-proof their farms and our food supply, the farmer of 2030 will have to know a fair whack of info about geoengineering. Geoengineering is modifying the earth and environment to counteract global warming. Pretty much, it is pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and locking it away underground to prevent climate change. This job in 2030 will be a necessity for every farm. In 2030 farmers will be on a carbon budget and will need to understand carbon capture. Most importantly they need to make biochar. So what is biochar?
Biochar is fast becoming a buzzword in eco-language. And here’s why. Two thousand years ago, in the Amazon basin, indigenous people didn’t use slash-and-burn techniques to control their natural environment. They used a method we now call slash-and-char. Instead of letting the part of the forest that was annoying them burn to the ground without a second thought, they burned wood and the green parts of the plant in controlled fires. They then smothered these fires in soil that ensured that charcoal was produced rather than ash. Knowing the charcoal contained lots of carbon, they then buried it in the soil where they grew or managed their crops. This made the soil super-fertile, and they prospered.
But alas, Europeans came along and took over the gaff, and decimated the local population. With the loss of the way of life, slash-and-char was forgotten and European humans went back to slash-and-burn. The fields of buried charcoal were forgotten for centuries. But all is not lost, because the fields were rediscovered recently. But that is not all. They had evolved into a type of über-fertile black soil, teeming with nutrients. It took a while for scientists to work out that they were man-made. And when they did, it was a hell of a lightbulb moment.
The expanses of black soil were named terra preta (“dark earth” in Portuguese). Most amazingly, the soils extended up to 6 feet deep in many places. The people studying them realised that the terra preta soils self-propagated. They had expanded all on their own. The buried charcoal had attracted a smorgasbord of life forms including microbes, worms, fungi and a host of other creatures whose waste products combined with the charcoal, making these dark earth patches grow considerably. Carbon from decomposing plants which would usually make a beeline for the atmosphere was instead caught and kept by the underground community of biologically active charcoal. And it doesn’t end there. Once this kind of event happens underground it goes on, grabbing more carbon and keeping it from going into the atmosphere.
Burying such chunks of biochar is also great for particular types of fungi that live on the plant roots in a symbiotic relationship. These little fungi search the surrounding soil for nutrients for its host plant, and deliver them when needed. Crops that have been grown on the soil fertilised by biochar have 45% more biomass than crops grown on dodgy soil dumped with artificial fertilisers.
And this is where farmers of the future will come in. They will be able to create such “carbon sinks” on their land, using waste materials from food production which would usually get dumped in landfill. Every kilo of biochar is thought to catch and trap 3 kilos of carbon. So in the future where carbon credits will equal money, farmers will be onto a winner with biochar.
Farmer 2030 will need to know how to use a particular type of kiln, placed on their property to make the biochar. They will be required to understand composting and how to bury the biochar, and have a knowledge of soil carbon management. It sounds like there will be some interesting bio-char courses cropping up in Ag Science degrees soon!
Farms can sometimes be huge. And not all of the farmland is suitable for the crops or animal farmed there. There can be boggy patches not suitable for animals, or rocky outcrops not suitable for plant life. And it is in these “unused” sections of the farms that can be used for energy farming. At the moment, many farms have a mix of animals and renewable energy, for example, a wind farm where cows eat the grass at their base. However in 30 years, where our energy needs are way more voracious than they are now, farmers will be the energy producers for the local area. With land being the primary factor in creating an energy farm, farmers will produce power for their local, more built up community. The thinktank Farming Futures envisions that farmers will be a hub provider, and their suburb will be connected to them via a smartgrid. In Ireland, this isn’t likely to be a community based on solar technology, however wind and wave technology are as promising as ever, alongside other newer forms of renewable energy generation.
As an example of this, a farmer from Wales has recently started to use the methane produced by cow manure to create fuel. This is enough to power his own farm, but as technology pushes us along, in 30 years energy farming will be on larger scale, supplying the whole neighbourhood. Energy farmers will be required to know electronic smart grid management, and maintenance skills to keep all the snazzy equipment on the energy farm going.
We are all crazy about smart phones and endless information access. We are also crazy about the backstory of our food. In 2030, the thinktank Farming Futures envisions that these two loves of humans will be combined. That is, customers will be able to scan a barcode with their phones and see in real time the farm where the product was produced. We want to see happy cows prancing in the hills, chickens running around like the brainless lunatics they are, and crops in a fresh breeze, hopefully not growing on the edges of the M50. We want to see happy workers in trendy clothes surveying the polytunnels in Meath.
As such, the “face” of the farm will be part of the brand. Farms will not only have to look like a rural idyll, they will also have to be transparent and be clearly ethical. And farms will also be expected to have someone on hand to update cheery brand-friendly information about the farm, so consumers stay involved with the brand, and confident about their purchasing behaviour. This person will be the “farm host.” Nice work if you can get it. It is the social networking of the farms of 2030. Let’s call it farmbook for now. Farmers will need social networking skills, storytelling skills, and technical skills to pull off all of the parts of the story that need broadcasting.
ANIMAL WELLBEING FARMER
We live in a world where burgers are starting to be produced in a lab in a low-pollution cruelty-free manner. So of the animals still left on the planet in 2014, humans are going to want them to live a nice life free of the ravages of factory farm life. Otherwise they are just going to opt for the cuddly cruelty-free version that comes from a petri dish. As such, the welfare of animals on farms will become paramount.
The thinktank Farming Futures envisions having an animal psychologist on the farm, or a farmer with specialist training to deal with animal issues will increase brand value. A welfare manager will use animal psychology to ensure that animals are not distressed in their environment. They will also provide therapies like acupuncture and massage to alleviate ailments, rather than resort to chemical medications that the buying public is so suspicious of. Animal psychologists will create pathways of slaughter that are the least stressful for the animal. This will all fit in well with the Farmbook Farmer, the two will work together closely to create a strong brand to the buying public. Skills required include animal psychology, animal nutrition, and holistic therapies for livestock.
There are two aspects to the bug farming of the future. One is to create bugs for us to eat. I know, you are thinking, that is just too gross. Even just twenty years ago we wouldn’t have dreamed of eating insects, however the market for insects as food has been increasing slowly. And in fact, as we get more used to the idea, a burger made of bug protein is not that far away. And it is better for us, and better for the earth.
According to Professor Arnold van Huis from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, producing a kilogram of meat from a cow requires 13kg of vegetable matter as feed. Yet 1kg of meat from a cricket, locust or beetle needs just 1.5 to 2kg of fodder, and produces a fraction of the CO2 emissions. “The good news is that, not only do insects require less food to farm, you also don’t have to eat as much to survive, as they are an extremely good source of protein and vitamins.” Okay, we will let you ease yourself into the idea, but you will have to get used to it if you think it is a good idea that we all eat healthily. So insect farming will soon be coming to a field near you! Be prepared.
The second aspect of insect farming is providing a natural substitute for pesticides. Insect farmers can grow friendly bugs that are natural enemies of annoying crop-eating insects. The good bugs eat the bad bugs, saving the crop farmers from spraying plants with pesticides, which the buying public are very suspicious of. Climate change has brought new pests to farmers in Europe, so scientists are currently looking to developing countries for their experience in using natural predators to control these species. The thinktank Farming Futures envisions future farmers growing insects in large controlled environments, and monitoring their progress will be a highly skilled job. Skills required will be a good knowledge of entomology, and a serious lack of squeamishness.
Vertical farms are designed to be in urban, built-up areas, and the idea is that local people can get access to local fresh food, without the transport costs and pollution that comes with food miles.
Vertical farms have been around in theoretical forms for about ten years, but now ACTUAL farmscrapers are starting to take shape. Built in a high-rise, farmscrapers will be a farm in a closed-loop system which conserves water. The farmers will be able to grow food all year round, not relying on the will of the weather for a good harvest.
An example of a farmscraper under construction is that recently commissioned by the city of Shenzhen in China. City managers commissioned French architects Vincent Callebaut to design a sustainable building that mixes residential living with farming. The result is called the Asian Cairns, 6 towers that are both farm and apartment. They are stunning, designed to look like a pile of rocks having a zen moment.
And China needs to create the urban biospheres and fast. In 2011, the number of city dwellers in China eclipsed rural dwellers for the first time, and just 30 years ago, one person in five lived in cities. With a population currently resting at 1.34 billion, that is one hell of a lot of city dwellers to feed. Experts in China have estimated that 75% of the Chinese population will be urbanites by 2030, our magic year of future farming. By building this prototype building, Shenzhen hopes to start the revolution of its inhabitants living in smart-cities that mimic nature and are much more sustainable.
Let’s hope it works. There will be a gardening tower in every building. And here is where the vertical farmer of the future comes in. This person will need to know about hydroponics and vertical farming, and know how to farm in a closed-loop system within a framework of zero emissions, and know how to keep the technology side of things ticking over. All in a day’s work for the farmer of 2030.