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‘We should not dismiss these ideas...’

Many of the concepts South Dakota State University ag-engineering students cooked into their 2076 “dream farm” are already standard practice – others less so – making the manners by which they were received by peers back then a valuable lesson in both future- and hindsight.

I started kindergarten in the fall of 1974 when a “Farming in 2076” piece ran in AFBF’s American Farmer magazine, summarizing a student project to imagine agriculture’s future. That was 47 years ago, and we’ve got another 55 years before we can judge how well the ag engineering students at South Dakota State (home of the Jackrabbits*) predicted a future they won’t live to see.

(A 20-year-old sophomore in 1974 would be 67 now — either retired from a Farm Bureau job or just getting broken-in as a real farmer. In the 2076 those sophomores strove to predict, they’d be 122. Probably won’t make it regardless of their career path.)

Predicting the future is as irresistible (and futile) as ever, but with each passing year big-picture patterns and trends stretch ahead, undistracted by the trifling whims of our economies, politics and august institutions.

Among agriculture’s most enduring trends is its drive toward ever-increasing efficiency. The innovation of agriculture itself, arguably the very dawn of civilization, rests upon the inherent efficiency of raising domesticated crops and livestock. At that point (10-12 millennia ago, give or take) we humans mostly turned our back on our hunter-gatherer past and settled down.

Ever since then farmers have been getting better at farming, and one of the inherent paradoxes therein is that as farmers get more efficient, the world needs fewer of them. And at less than 2% of today’s American population, it makes you wonder just how fewer you can get.

The Jackrabbit ag students from 1974 looked into their crystal balls and foresaw — or “dreamed up” as the snide AFBF staffer sneered — some interesting things about their future farm. Without responding line by line, there are some general themes worth pointing out:

  • All crop production is enclosed under plastic, allowing for precise application of water and inputs, and minimal pests or diseases. Precision climate control makes it so separate plots can cycle through planting, growth and harvest stages simultaneously.
  • Livestock are also enclosed in a high-rise tower, self-sufficient and vertically integrated to include its own power supply; veterinarians; workshops and research facilities; refrigeration, packaging and storage (implying slaughter as well); and water and waste treatment.
  • There’s a lot of recycling, some more inspired than others: using transpired water vapor for irrigation; repurposing human, animal and crop wastes; and swapping the livestock’s exhaled carbon dioxide with the crop enclosures’ transpired oxygen.

Some of the concepts proposed are already standard procedure. Modern greenhouses have been relying on electronically controlled irrigation for years. Other notions seem more far-fetched, like the use of magnets to pull treated seed into the ground, hovercraft-like field equipment floating on cushions of air, and tilling the soil with electromagnetic waves.

Environmentalism was in its infancy in the early 1970s, and the ambitious young ag-engineering students there in Brookings couldn’t have foreseen the extremities it would reach. Nor could they have likely predicted the related passion Western society would develop for the humane treatment of livestock. Only the most callous 21st-century carnivores would be okay with cramming tens of thousands of animal units into a 15-story building.

But the vertical integration component of that same concept is now an industry standard — not to the extent those 1974 kids imagined, but still a pervasive theme throughout modern, commercial-scale agriculture.

Whoever wrote the 1974 American Farmer piece begins with a clearly skeptical, cynical tone before summarizing their concept in nine bullet points. It’s hard to say how detailed those bullets are without seeing the full, original plan, and the AFBF writer offers no conclusion, no parting thoughts: The last bullet point ends the piece.

So I did what any curious 21st-century Farm Bureau writer would do: went hunting online. A quick search turned up a booklet commemorating the 50-year anniversary of SDSU’s Ag Engineering program, which ends with an irresistible (and futile) look toward the future: “Engineering students of the past used the slide rule. Now they are using pocket calculators...”

Lastly, there’s a nod to the then-current class’ 2076 Dream Farm project, ending with a more encouraging sentiment than the AFBF writer could manage. While acknowledging some of the ideas were hard to imagine, there was simply this:

We should not dismiss these ideas as impossible.”

~

*Unrelated: The South Dakota State Jackrabbits are, naturally, the sworn enemies of the North Dakota State Bison. This year on the gridiron the basement-dwelling bunnies scampered right past their lumbering rivals, upsetting the previously undefeated Bison 27-19 before a jubilant home crowd. Leaving the Dakota Marker trophy there in Brookings must’ve stung and made the three-hour bus ride back to Fargo a somber affair. It was the 112th meeting of the rivalry, which the Bison lead 63-44 overall; there’ve been five ties. #GoJacks

Date Posted: November 12, 2021
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