In The News

Seeding Change: The Future of Agriculture

This article appeared in the Shelbyville Daily-Union on August 22, 2016. You may access the original article here.


A panel of experts spoke in Shelbyville over the weekend about the future of agriculture in America.

The presentation on Saturday, “Seeding Change? The Future of Our Farms and Communities,” was part of a traveling program series sponsored by the Illinois Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Simon King speaking in Shelbyville
Simon King speaking in Shelbyville. Photo credit Charles Mills

Presenters during the Shelbyville stop were Simon King, Director of the Carnegie Mellon University design center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Steve John, executive director and co-founder of the Agricultural Watershed Institute in Decatur; and Diane Roberts, president of the Shelbyville Farmers Market Association.

Roberts, the owner of Sand Creek Garden Farms in rural Windsor township, talked about her experience with locally grown crops from her 22-acre plot of land located on her family’s farm. With a previous sales background, she’s attuned to her customers’ needs when marketing products from her garden farm.

“Not everything is for everyone,” Roberts said. “In some locations where I sell okra — Mattoon Charleston and Shelbyville for instance — it’s just kinda of ugh (okra sales). But Effingham, I sell more okra down there than I do green beans. So you have to know what each market needs.”

Roberts says the Shelbyville Farmers Market is a growers-only market.

“We don’t allow people in who re-sale products,” Roberts said. “We feel it keeps the integrity of this market for our customers to be able to ask questions about how the produce and products are made or grown. People want to know what they’re eating.”

Illinois Humanities Program Coordinator Matt Meacham kicked off the discussion by noting why the Illinois Humanities organization, which is commonly known for its work with cultural activities, would pursue the subject of agriculture.

“The mission of Illinois Humanities is to strengthen society by fueling inquiry and conversation about the ideas and works that shape our culture,” Meacham said. “Many of the ideas and works by which Illinoisans have shaped the culture of our nation and our world are agricultural.”

“Agricultural ideas and works originating here in Illinois have influenced the world far beyond its boundaries,” Meacham added.

According to Meacham, one of Illinois Humanities’ primary goals is to listen carefully and learn as much as they can from the local agricultural communities by creating conversations.

King, who grew up on a farm in rural Michigan, focused his presentation on agricultural technology. King reviewed the technological advances of the past to where they are today in the farming industry.

King said it takes a gamblers mindset to play the farming game.

“There has always been a risk in a profession that is dependent on a mix of the market and the weather,” he said.

However, King added the profession is entering a new era of farming technology that might help make it less of a gamble.

“Some people call it precision agriculture and it sometimes gets called data-driven agriculture,” he said.

King noted today’s new technology brings new capabilities to the farming industry, but questions whether or not technology is actually good for the typical farmer.

“Big Ag’s vision of the future of agriculture can often be very top down,” King said. “Exploiting technical possibilities, but leaving it up to the farmer to decide if its actually worth the investment for their business. And not only is this technology costly, but the farmer’s data is often captured and owned by the equipment manufacturers.”

According to King, there are currently privacy and data ownership debates going on in the agricultural industry.

King went on to talk about a new era that has evolved over the last decade called the locally grown movement.

“Consumers are seeking a closer connection to the food that they eat,” King said. “They want healthy food, locally grown and they want it to have a good story.”

King says consumers want a compelling story about where their food came from, including what technology is used, if cages or pesticides are used, and whether it is genetically modified or organic.

“We’re in the extraordinary position today where a quarter of all American farmers are beginning farmers,” King said. “This is a chance for them to embrace this new era. And to define it as something that is about more than increasing yields, but about something that empowers them to make their own technology decisions.”

According to King, some farmers are now catering to the new era. They are appropriating cheap technology tools to farm more effectively and then sharing what they learn with others. Some farmers are creating their own electronic devices and sharing it with other farmers who then have the freedom to add to that technology to suit their needs.

“This is the new feedback loop,” King says, “When small farmers try something new and share their insights with other farmers.”

King said a new organization, called Farm Hack, allows farmers to collaborate and share their findings.

“This era is exciting to me because it’s still being defined,” King said. “Farming is normal. Farming is nothing new, but the way that we do it still has a lot of room to improve.”

Steve John gave a regional perspective on the future of farming. John started off his presentation looking back 100 years ago, He described the central Illinois landscape at the time as having a lot of corn, pasture land, hay and small grain. Decatur, he said, had a lot to do with changing the central Illinois landscape in the 1920s and 30s when A.E. Staley, who John says is well known as one of the pioneers of soybeans, decided to open a processing plant and create a soybean market.

John also noted a major landscape change after World War II when pasture, hay and small grain dropped to almost nothing in central Illinois and were replaced by hybrid corn and the manufacture of industrial nitrogen fertilizer.

“That transition to basically a lot of farms in central Illinois being grain-only operations with corn and soybeans as the two crops took place between 1950 to 1970,” John said. “By 1970, the landscape looks a lot like it does today.”

According to John, the nitrogen phosphorus run-off went into the Mississippi River and flowed down to the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico causing gulf hypoxia, cutting down the oxygen content of the water.

John feels the farm production of multifunctional perennial cropping systems or perennial biomass crops, such as switchgrass, would help solve some of the water quality issues.