Engineering Earth: Rethinking Agriculture After 100 Years of Innovation
Over the last 100 years, mechanization has enabled our farming community to do the unthinkable. Farmers can cover thousands of acres on a single tractor, making food more accessible than ever. Through these 100 years of innovation and growth, we’ve gone down a path of production that seems unsustainable and is beginning to have global repercussions.
Innovation in Agriculture Through Necessity
The Dust Bowl and the Great Potato Famine are cornerstone events in agricultural history that dramatically highlighted the fragility of food systems. These crises underscored the consequences of over-reliance on monoculture – the practice of cultivating a single crop over a vast area for consecutive years. This approach, while initially boosting productivity, eventually led to devastating long-term impacts, such as soil degradation and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases.
These events spurred innovations in the understanding of soil science and plant nutrition. It was recognized that adding specific nutrients to the soil could significantly enhance crop yields. This understanding led to the development and widespread adoption of synthetic fertilizers, which could replenish soil nutrients more efficiently and predictably than traditional methods.
This shift towards more input-intensive agriculture came with its drawbacks. Over the subsequent centuries, the agricultural industry molded itself around this new structure, focusing primarily on maximizing yield and efficiency. This approach often overlooked the long-term environmental impacts, such as soil erosion, water contamination, and loss of biodiversity.
Solving Problems As We Create Them: Every Industry Does It.
Innovation and adaptation are constants in every industry, and agriculture is no exception. With each new technological advancement, existing systems and auxiliary components must evolve to remain relevant and efficient. As farmers transitioned their practices the needs they had changed, and everyone from seed suppliers and equipment manufacturers to chemical producers had to keep up. An example of this change is that gas pumps are no longer required in the electric motor world.
Over the last few centuries, many of these practices conformed to these new standards.
Seed companies vie for dominance in high-yielding acreages, with their success often hinged on superior genetics. The primary focus of these companies is on maximizing yield per acre, which drives relentless innovation in seed development. However, this singular focus on yield can sometimes sideline other critical biological traits.
One significant trade-off in the pursuit of high-yield seeds is the diminished natural defense mechanisms of the crops. In the effort to maximize productive attributes like larger corn cobs or increased pod numbers, other genetic traits, particularly those contributing to a plant’s natural resilience against pests and diseases, may be deprioritized. These natural defenses typically require allocating the plant’s resources and energy, which, when diverted to bolster yield, can leave the crops more vulnerable.
This trade-off has far-reaching implications. The reduction in natural defense mechanisms in high-yield seeds necessitates greater reliance on chemical interventions to protect crops from pests and diseases. As a result, the last century has seen an increased dependence on pesticides and other chemical treatments in agriculture.
Tillage, the practice of cultivating soil, is as old as agriculture itself. It has evolved from the era of animal-drawn plows to the use of sophisticated mechanized equipment. This progression has enabled deeper soil penetration, necessary in part to alleviate soil compaction caused by the increasing weight and size of modern tractors. However, this deep tillage has significant drawbacks. One major issue with deep tillage is its substantial resource requirement. It necessitates the use of large, fuel-intensive tractors and is a time-consuming process.
The physical disruption of soil also has ecological impacts: it can destroy soil microorganisms and fauna, disrupt soil structure, and increase erosion. Economically, the costs associated with the fuel, maintenance, and slower operational speed make deep tillage an expensive endeavor per acre. These factors contribute to a growing interest in no-till or reduced-till farming practices, which aim to minimize soil disruption while maintaining crop productivity.
Repeated cultivation of the same crops has led to nutrient depletion in soils. This prompted extensive research by universities and chemical companies into the specific nutrients required for various crops. Scientists found that each crop requires a specific amount of NPK nutrients, which can be added to the soil each year. Consequently, the use of synthetic fertilizers became widespread as they proved to significantly increase crop yields and, historically, farm profitability.
Over time, soil fertility has become increasingly dependent on artificial inputs, reducing the natural regenerative capacity of the soil. The use of chemical fertilizers can lead to environmental issues like waterway pollution, soil acidification, and the reduction of beneficial soil organisms. The challenge moving forward is to develop sustainable fertilization practices that balance crop productivity with the costs associated with synthetic fertilizers.
On the back of having trouble getting any yield from their acres, fertilizer was a welcomed addition for farmers. Little did the farming community know that centuries down the road, fertilizers would be the only way to be competitive in production.
Monocropping – the practice of growing the same crop year after year on the same land – has been a significant factor in pest proliferation. The lack of diversity in monoculture systems creates an ideal environment for pests to thrive and spread. Additionally, the reduced natural defenses in genetically engineered crops exacerbate their vulnerability to pests.
The growing resistance of pests to chemical treatments is a looming challenge. As pests evolve to withstand current pesticides, more potent chemicals or increased application rates are required, escalating the costs and environmental impacts. There’s a growing need for integrated pest management strategies that combine biological controls, crop rotation, and selective pesticide use to manage pest populations effectively and sustainably.
The evolution of agricultural equipment mirrors the trend towards larger, more powerful machinery. Modern tractors and their attachments, designed for efficiency and high-capacity work, are significantly heavier and more fuel-intensive. This increase in size and weight, while beneficial for productivity, leads to challenges such as greater soil compaction, higher fuel consumption, and increased wear and tear, resulting in more frequent breakdowns.
The financial implications of operating such large machinery are considerable. The costs of fuel, maintenance, and repairs, along with the inefficiencies associated with slower operations during deep tillage and spraying, contribute to a substantial financial burden for farmers. This situation underscores the need for innovations in agricultural machinery, potentially focusing on more efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective solutions, such as lighter, smarter equipment and precision agriculture technologies.
The Changing of Farming Incentives Over Time
Since the founding of America, farming has been distributed across tens of millions of people, with small plots of land. Between major brands pushing the costs of food and biochemical production down alongside a new generation of children not interested in farming, we are seeing an unprecedented consolidation of farmland into what is today called “big ag”.
Farming has become more concentrated and mechanized every year since the 1900s, we are not here to discuss the right / wrong of this but the fact that it exists, and because it exists it might save the world.
40 acres and a farmer used to be the backbone of farming in America, today corporations manage thousands of acres. The concentration of farming operations is changing the fundamental economics of an acre. The economics for an acre of land are changing from how much money can we make from inputs to farmers to a cost-mitigation activity for finance departments.
Over the last 100 years, major companies have treated farmers as a sales opportunity. Seed, fertilizer, and pesticide producers see an average $ per acre for their ingredients, which makes the crop grow better. This is the benchmark for farming, and quite frankly it works and it’s created a lot of jobs in the process.
As farmland has been concentrated under high-performance operators, whether through acquisition or land-rent models, we are starting to see a shift in incentives. And this shift might save the world (but not your job).
With automated tractors on the horizon combined with land concentrations, the farming input incentive has changed from a revenue potential to a cost of goods. Companies are now the farmer and will be looking for cost savings in their production, and if regenerative agriculture economics showcase that less work and fewer ingredients input into the soil can yield the same results, these companies will naturally transition. This is where the opportunity for regenerative agriculture lives.
Rethinking an Industry With 100 Years of Success Behind You
Change is the only constant in our world. Every day, people are working tirelessly to improve everything around us. Improving things asks a simple question: “is there a better way to do this?”
Most times, it’s a simple question to a small problem. An incremental improvement to an existing system. The last 100 years of agriculture have been simple improvements to the same philosophy, ‘start the new year with a clean slate and input everything you need for success’.
Building off of that philosophy, we have seen genetics designed for better yield with certain inputs, we have seen equipment designed to perfect how those inputs are put into the soil, and we’ve seen chemical inputs developed to improve the yield of those crops. All of these improvements build on the same principle.
Tesla’s Example of Rethinking an Industry
The automotive industry is no different than agriculture, having its own principle of combustion engines. Everything done to vehicles and our infrastructure with regard to vehicles is built off of this principle. Gas stations, roadways, vehicle design, etc. All are built around how to improve combustion engine efficiency to sell more vehicles.
Now when you change the principle, from combustion to electric motors. What happens?
It is well known that electric motors are extremely efficient and very powerful, used everywhere from nuclear power generation to warehouse fans. They are versatile and durable. But living in the principle of electric motors, there is so much more that doesn’t exist to meet the demand of that principle change.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen battery recycling and electric charging upgrades to infrastructure alongside air intake, storage changes, and electronic voltage standards. These improvements are suited to the principle of electric motors.
This change from combustion to electric motors is becoming foundational all around us because of one simple economic fact: it makes sense. Costs are low, performance is rising, and ease of access is improving. It opens the door to a more cost efficient future than combustion could ever enable for us, sustainability aside. The economics make sense.
Are There Any Philosophies in Farming We Can Challenge?
If we look back at the five major innovations in farming over the last 100 years, let’s put the pieces together to rethink the future of farming.
The evolution of seed technology, from heirloom varieties to genetically modified organisms, mirrors humanity’s quest to optimize agriculture. Yet, this journey has often sidelined the inherent resilience of crops. While GMOs have brought unparalleled yields, they’ve weakened natural defenses against pests and diseases built over 100,000,000 years.
The advent of CRISPR and gene editing heralds a new era, promising seeds that balance high yield with robust natural resilience. Such advancements could revolutionize our approach, enabling us to cultivate crops that are not only productive but also hardier against environmental stresses. By embracing seed diversity and preservation, we equip ourselves against the unpredictable challenges of climate change, ensuring a more sustainable agricultural future.
With genetics that have natural resilience built in, we can reduce input costs on a per-acre basis.
The story of tillage is one of adaptation and impact. Traditional tillage methods have given way to intensive soil cultivation, aimed at maximizing crop yields. However, this has often come at the expense of soil health, leading to erosion and biodiversity loss. Alternatives like reduced or no-till farming, permaculture, and agroforestry present a paradigm shift, emphasizing soil preservation and ecosystem balance.
These practices, supported by research and successful implementations, promise to maintain soil health, increase biodiversity, and reduce the carbon footprint of farming. As we move towards sustainable agriculture, rethinking tillage becomes not just an option, but a necessity for the health of our planet.
The challenge to this model is that it takes a few years to build up organic matter that can reduce fertilizer use and it can be expensive until the return is seen.
Modern disc technology reduces the impact of tillage by over 85% and leaves organic matter in the ground. This will be a key to naturally building nutrients and preventing pests from taking over the crops. Disc tillage can be done at 4x the speed of deep tillage, and reduces the strain on equipment, meaning farmers can farm more land per hour for less.
Synthetic fertilizers, once heralded as a boon for the Green Revolution, now pose environmental challenges. The overuse of these chemicals has led to waterway pollution and diminished soil life. The transition to organic and natural fertilizers, including manures, offers a sustainable alternative. These methods replenish the soil organically, enhancing its natural fertility without the adverse effects of chemical inputs.
What if the combination of manure, cover crops, and reduced tillage increasing organic matter in soil lead to an 80% reduction in fertilizer requirements? The impact on the bottom line when the financial model on farms converts from value sale to COGS reduction will be substantial.
That is the future of regenerative agriculture practices.
The traditional approach to pest control, heavily reliant on chemical pesticides, faces the challenge of evolving pest resistances. Pests evolve to become resistant to chemicals like Roundup and begin requiring harsher and harsher products. These products are harming every community they’re used in.
This calls for a more sustainable and holistic strategy, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM combines biological controls like natural defenses and intelligent crop rotation. Emphasizing biodiversity, especially nurturing pollinators and beneficial insects, can naturally curtail pest populations. The shift towards biological pest control methods, utilizing natural defenses, predators, and microbial agents, represents a forward-thinking approach to pest management, aligning agricultural practices with ecological principles.
If a crop has been properly prepared for pests with natural defenses, in a multi-crop rotation there is a viable opportunity to reduce or eliminate the requirement for pesticides. Reducing pesticide costs would eliminate a line item on the COGS of farming, reducing costs and allowing farmers to grow better crops.
As agricultural machinery has evolved, becoming larger and more fuel-intensive, it has inadvertently contributed to issues like soil compaction and increased carbon emissions. Big tractors are here to stay, but heavy-weight compaction can be reduced with tracks instead of tires. This would reduce the need for tillage.
The future of farming equipment lies in smarter technologies. Innovations such as autonomous tractors, electric farm vehicles, and AI-driven solutions promise to revolutionize farming efficiency. These advancements offer the dual benefits of reducing environmental impact and enhancing economic viability. The transition to lighter, more efficient machinery, coupled with precision agriculture techniques, could significantly reduce the ecological footprint of farming, ushering in a new era of sustainable agricultural practices.
John Deere and Case International have been developing autonomous tracker platforms, which would reduce the risk for farmers and could operate 24/7. In the pursuit of autonomy reducing the amount of time/energy and resources to plant would be catalyzed by autonomous farming.
All of these economics point to reduced COGS on farms and better crops, all while improving our environment.
A New Crop Is Required To Challenge Tradition
The agricultural landscape, long dominated by staple crops like corn and soybeans, finds itself at a crossroads. These traditional crops, bred for decades to suit intensive farming practices, have their genetic makeup tailored primarily for yield, at the expense of natural pest resistance. This genetic trajectory, firmly established over half a century ago, has made it increasingly challenging to unwind these genetics back to a form suitable to less intensive farming practices.
While practices like low tillage and disc technology enable farmers to reduce fertilizer costs and soil compaction, they represent only a partial solution within the constraints of traditional row crops. The need for a fundamental shift in agricultural paradigms is evident — a shift that not only addresses the limitations of current practices but also propels farming into a more sustainable future.
Enter Industrial Hemp
Industrial hemp emerges as a beacon of hope in this scenario. Dubbed the ‘oldest new crop’, hemp presents a unique combination of versatility and sustainability that sets it apart from conventional agricultural staples. Its genetics are relatively untapped in comparison to extensively modified crops like corn and soy, which retain robust natural defenses. This inherent resilience makes hemp a promising candidate for cultivation with minimal pesticide usage.
Hemp is more than just another crop; it’s a multifaceted natural resource. It offers not only nutritional value through its seeds but also a myriad of industrial applications through its fibers. From textiles and plastics to building materials, the potential uses of hemp are vast and diverse. This versatility opens new markets and opportunities for farmers, going beyond the traditional scope of agricultural produce.
Moreover, hemp plays a significant role in soil regeneration. Unlike many crops that deplete soil nutrients, hemp contributes to soil health, leaving a richer, more balanced soil profile in its wake. This attribute is particularly focused on the extensive root system left behind after harvesting industrial hemp.
Industrial hemp’s adaptability to a wide range of environmental conditions further cements its status as a crop of the future. Capable of thriving in various climates and soil types, hemp offers a resilient alternative to traditional crops that often require specific, sometimes intensive, farming conditions. The economic implications are significant — hemp has the potential to yield higher profits per acre than traditional crops like corn and beans, offering farmers a more lucrative and environmentally friendly option.
The Solution & The Economics To Prove It All
The future of agriculture is at a pivotal intersection of land consolidation, technological advancement, and ecological necessity. The equation is simple yet profound: massive land acquisitions plus genetics with built-in defenses, combined with low-tillage practices, limited fertilizer needs, pest-resistant crops, and the advent of autonomous farming equipment. This formula sets the stage for an agricultural revolution that not only promises greater efficiency but also a sustainable future for everyone.
Large corporations are increasingly moving towards acquiring vast tracts of farmland, driven by the motive to reduce production risk, optimize costs, and maximize yields. The deployment of autonomous tractors and smart farming technologies is not just a futuristic vision but a near-term reality. The transition to such technologies signifies a paradigm shift from traditional farming methods, offering precision and efficiency previously unattainable. This transition for corporations will mean inputs become a cost of goods, rather than a sales opportunity for chemistry, and all of them will be looking to reduce those costs over time.
The key to this transformation lies in integrating advanced genetics and sustainable farming practices. Seeds engineered with natural defenses reduce the dependency on chemical pesticides, tackling one of the biggest challenges in modern agriculture. Simultaneously, embracing low-tillage techniques enhances soil health, builds organic matter, and cuts down on the need for synthetic fertilizers. All of these practices require less tractor time to cover the same amount of land, simplifying the job for autonomous tractors. This approach aligns with the principles of regenerative agriculture, where the focus is not just on crop yield but on the health of the entire ecosystem.
The economic implications of this shift are substantial. Reduced reliance on pesticides and fertilizers directly translates to lower operational costs. Furthermore, autonomous equipment, designed for efficiency and precision, minimizes labor and maintenance expenses. For large-scale farming operations, this means a significant reduction in the cost of goods sold, making farming not only more environmentally sustainable but also more financially viable.
In a remarkable twist, the pursuit of cost-effectiveness by these companies could inadvertently lead to more sustainable farming practices. Corporate goals, often driven by profit, might unknowingly align with environmental objectives, leading to a win-win scenario for both the planet and the economy.
As we stand at the brink of this new era in agriculture, it becomes increasingly clear that the solutions to our current challenges lie in embracing innovation, rethinking traditional practices, and realigning economic incentives with ecological sustainability. Regenerative agriculture, with its holistic approach, emerges as the cornerstone of this new agricultural paradigm. It offers a blueprint for a future where farming contributes positively to the environment, supporting a healthier planet for future generations.
The Impact Of Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture stands not merely as a method but as a beacon of hope in our pursuit of a healthier planet. Its implications are profound and far-reaching, touching every aspect of our ecosystem and societal well-being.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Reduction
At its core, regenerative agriculture is a powerful ally against climate change. By enhancing soil health and increasing organic matter, this approach naturally sequesters more CO2 from the atmosphere. Healthier soils have a greater capacity to act as carbon sinks, thus playing a crucial role in mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases. This shift from traditional farming methods to regenerative practices can significantly contribute to global efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.
Mitigating Chemical Runoff
One of the most significant environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture is the substantial reduction in chemical runoff. Improved root structure and moving away from reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, we can prevent harmful chemicals from contaminating our waterways and soil. This not only protects aquatic life and preserves biodiversity but also ensures cleaner, safer drinking water for our communities.
Better Food Quality
Regenerative agriculture also heralds a return to more nutritious and wholesome food. Crops grown in rich, well-balanced soil are often higher in nutrients. This shift in farming practices can lead to a new era of food production, where the emphasis is on quality and nutritional value rather than just quantity. It’s a transition that promises to enhance the health and well-being of consumers, bringing us closer to food that is not only good for us but also delicious.
The positive impacts of regenerative agriculture extend beyond the physical to the emotional and psychological. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that healthier eating leads to improved mood and mental health. Furthermore, the knowledge that one’s food choices are contributing to environmental sustainability can bring about a greater sense of connection and responsibility towards the planet.
A Better World
Ultimately, the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices is a step towards a better world. It’s a world where farming works in harmony with nature, where our food systems support the health of the earth and its inhabitants, and where future generations can thrive. As we embrace these sustainable practices, we pave the way for a future that respects the delicate balance of our ecosystem, ensuring that the planet we leave behind is as vibrant and bountiful as the one we inhabit today.
The Future of Farming
I’ve painted a picture of what the future of farming can look like. It’s your turn to make the pledge to Engineer Earth.
We at Heartland intend to make it a reality for the industrial hemp crop, and we believe the world will follow.
Join us in becoming the most sustainable company on earth, by Engineering Earth.