My journey to understand farming
Food is one of the things we can't live without and yet so I've found myself very curious about its production and the industry that it creates. I see the farming industry as kind of an old God in a pantheon of industries. Ancient and extremely powerful, occupying a special place in the heavens.
Forewarning though, my understanding is still infantile so I'm bound to make mistakes and don't claim to be a source of any kind of knowledge. Double check anything I put here by all means.
When I first got the idea to look into gardening I just wanted a regular garden. However, I quickly started to get overrun with ideas in my head. I soon found myself in the area of vertical farming and urban farming. For those unaware, vertical farming in the practice of farming in vertical layers, usually done indoors, with the user of hydroponics. Urban farming is really just small scale farming withing city/town limits.
Vertical farming sounded like the future to me. It promised less water usage, higher crop yields, and complete control of the environment crops were grown in. That last part was a key point in peeking my interest. Think about how many problems could be solved by controlling the temperature, humidity, and air contents crops were exposed to. You could ensure no pests made it into the building, prevent the need for herbicides or pesticides. You could grow year round and take up a fraction of the land that regular crops would need. Plus you'd be able to grow nearly anywhere, eliminating food transport costs and inefficiencies.
Alas, there was one sticking point I couldn't seem to get past, nor could anyone else. Energy! All the above sounds great until you consider how much energy it all costs. I wanted to start my own little vertical farm in my back yard and ended up calculating the number of solar panels and battery packs I'd need and the numbers were not pretty. Any land I'd have saved via growing upwards was swallowed up by the space I'd need for solar panels. If I chose not to use renewables and draw from the grid then any cost I'd save on inputs or transport would be swallowed by the electricity bill.
Then there's the carbon foot print to consider. When I was researching vertical farming, one thing that drew me into it was the amount of water it used and the lack of chemicals. These were all good things for the environment. Lack of food travel also meant less gas moving food between cities. I was looking for an environmentally friendly solution. I was determined that any vertical farm I built had to be powered 100% from renewables and unfortunately that was just not to be.
At the same time I started to read an amazing book called "The Soil will Save Us" by Kristin Ohlson. It's definitely worth the read and what I started to understand was that taking plants out of the soil just wasn't a good idea. Plant have an inseparable relationship with the soil they grow in far beyond simple anchoring and fertilizer rich water is no replacement for the myriad of microbial activity in the earth.
As my attention turned back towards traditional farming I still wanted the control that vertical farming was promising. I still wondered why automation hadn't taken a bigger role in farming. So now I'm setting out to answer that question. I want to know why robotics has lagged in the farming industry for so long but I also want to see if I can build a system that allows for farming to take a more automated approach.
This summer I am planting a garden in the back yard and hoping I can begin testing some methods of data collection and automation on it. I will almost certainly start with just data collection, but will hopefully move towards automation quickly. From what I've been able to read so far, one of the major sticking points in automation is the ability to harvest. It's not hard to create an automatic watering mechanism or to have a robot which rolls down rows of crops and sprays them. Harvesting is a whole other ordeal though as you need to collect hundreds or thousands of units of crops.
I don't know where I'll go with this. I may try it out and abandon it, but I'm curious so I figure why not see where it takes me.