Has Technology Turned Our Farm Into a Factory?

Portrait of funny looking piglet

From the Farmer’s Tractor

April 30, 2015

by guest columnist Erin Brenneman

From the outside looking in on a modern farm, it is easy to recognize why people may start to believe that technology is turning farms into factories. Technology today is used in so many instances to improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency of a job. In turn, that particular job may eventually be dehumanized and replaced by a well-programed robot or machine. Soon so many things that are “made” are indeed made in a factory, often with minimal staff and maximum robotic counterparts.

The same theories and effects are applied to farming because after all, the farm is where food is “made.” The farming community has begun to embrace technology and use it to be more efficient at our jobs. But this incorporation of modern innovation has led to the misconception of technology in farming as an image of a factory pumping out product, with little to no human interaction and many mechanized parts. In fact, technology and innovation in farming veers completely away from its “factory” counterparts and instead heads in a surprisingly different direction.

For example, take the story of our pig farm. In the last 10 years, our family farm has grown – almost tripled – in size and vastly improved our efficiency. Do you think we accomplished such growth and prosperity by trading humans for robots and reducing our interactions with the actual farm and animals? Not quite. We have grown because family members moved back and wanted to be a part of the farm too. And to support this growth, we have added people to help and advise us on the way. Our family is good at raising pigs because we all have a passion for the farm. Now more than ever, our day-to-day tasks are focused on the very basics of pig care and good animal husbandry. How is that possible, you ask? It is possible because of technology. Automation of certain tasks on the farm has made it possible for us to really place attention back onto the human part of raising pigs. It provides us with more time and more manpower to emphasize hands-on care. It has made this farm less “factory” than ever.

Automated sow feeding is a great example of this phenomenon. Our farm is equipped with an automatic feeding system that conveys and dispenses feed to our sows every day, four times a day, in the buildings. To put that in perspective, consider that the system is replacing the task of feeding 1,250 hungry, lactating mothers four times a day. Can you imagine the amount of time and people it would take to do such a thing with a cart and a scoop? And how accurately do you think we could feed them when determining amounts? In this instance, technology has enabled us to put the thinking, human part back into the job. With the system taking care of the conveying and dispensing, we can walk around to every single sow, make sure she is doing well and adjust the amount of feed she is given on an individual basis. We can also walk up to every feeder and make sure the feed inside is clean and fresh. We do both of those things every day with only two people instead of 10 and in a quarter of the time. In addition, we now have eight more people available (because they aren’t needed to feed sows) to assist in checking sows giving birth and making sure newborn piglets are warm, dry and full of their moms’ antibody-packed milk. This task alone is one of the most important and hands-on jobs on the farm. A machine will never be able to replace the skill and heart it takes to successfully do that every day and we are thankful for the automation that allows us to have that time.

At the end of the day, the perception of modern farming will always be in the eyes of the beholder. When such dramatic and harmful terms are thrown around in attempts to discredit the life and work that I know and love, it is with no hesitation that I jump to defend it and spread the good word about farming and technology.

It is with this in mind that I sincerely ask of you: if it seems too awful to be true when it comes to your food, ask a farmer. We are a human voice here on the other side, not an automated answering machine, and we are more than happy to help.

Erin Brenneman, a member of the second class of Faces of Farming & Ranching, is a pig farmer from Iowa. Brenneman Pork is a family farrow to finish operation. They consist of just over 20,000 sows over three sites. Erin’s main home farm is located in southeast Iowa and she also has two sow farms in Missouri. The operation was started by Erin’s in-laws and is where almost all of their children and spouses work full time. Erin enjoys helping in the fields during the busy seasons, but her passion is with the pigs.

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