Last week I visited a modern Australian farm on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia, about 500km from where I live in Adelaide.
This farm has been in one family for several generations, and has steadily grown to 8000 acres (3200 hectares). This same area was previously farmed by 7 families, and now provides a livelihood for just one. This tells me that modern agriculture is super efficient, and explains why food (and calories) are super cheap for us here in the affluent Western world.
This is both good and bad. Given the right political conditions, science and technology enables us to feed the world. We don’t need to be hungry and can use those excess calories for other purposes. The jobs lost in one industry migrate to others. This farming family, for example, has spawned a variety of professionals that have left the family farm and done good things for the world.
It also brings diseases of affluence. Our poor bodies are not evolved to deal with an excess of food. We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, constantly on the look out for the next calorie. Historically we haven’t had enough. So we are hard wired to eat too much. Hence the rise of heart disease and diabetes.
Breathtaking Array of Skills
I was impressed by the diverse array of skills required to run the farm. Business, animal husbandry, mechanical, agricultural science. The increased mechanisation means computers everywhere and I imagine robotics is on the horizon. During our visit they were measuring the moisture content of the crop to determine the best time to harvest. They even have an animal “retirement village” – they care for several old working dogs who had kept foxes away from the sheep for years.
Unlike many jobs, they don’t know what their yields and hence income will be from year to year. That’s a lot of risk in your annual income.
Overall, It takes about 12 years to learn the skills needed to run a modern farm.
This farm produces 3,500 tonnes of wheat per year. Based on 13680 kJ/kg of wheat, and a person needing 8700 kJ/day, that’s enough to feed 15,000 people every year. From the work of one family farm. Wow.
I asked them about organic farming. The bottom line is the yields would be halved. So double the prices for everything we eat. That may be fine if you are a rich Westerner but that is the line between life and death for someone in the developing world. Alternatively, it means using twice the land under cultivation for the same amount of food. Organic means starving poor people and goodbye rain forests.
Their use of pesticides is strictly monitored and all residues must be removed. They have modern, scientific methods of erosion control to manage the soil, and techniques to naturally fix nitrogen. Sustainability is being addressed right now by modern, scientific, farming.
In my opinion the organic food movement is a more about scientific illiteracy and marketing than health.
On a nearby hill was a 75MW wind farm, part of many that have sprung up in South Australia over the past decade. I am quite proud that South Australia now averages 30% wind power. We are about to close down our last remaining coal power station.
In this case, the lucky farmer that owns the land leased for the wind turbines receives $100k per year in passive income. K-ching K-ching as the turbines rotate.
It’s incredible to think that for years there have been “rivers of energy” flowing over those hills. It took technology and the right economic conditions to reach up and pluck that energy out of the sky.