What farmworkers and farmers need to know about Precision Tech


Will the Silicon Valley technologies making their way to your farm bring the wealth they promise? Here are the questions you should ask to assess risks like job loss, inequity, and reducing your control over your farm.

Around the world, agriculture is the lifeblood of rural economies. Rural communities worldwide are economically dependent on the revenue generated by crops and livestock. Farmers, farm workers, and all related industries that make agriculture occur in rural spaces are intimately woven together by place and people.

Rural communities and their economies are increasingly valuable, not just for what they produce but how they produce it. Tracking the movements on a farm is an industry of its own. Silicon Valley and related investors have now targeted agriculture, particularly fruits and vegetables, as the next industry to “disrupt” through the deployment of digital technology or precision agriculture. Purveyors of this technology are making many creative market claims, from reducing labor costs to increased yields. Absent from this narrative is the impact precision agriculture will have on rural communities, growers, and farm workers.

This article briefly explores the impacts on each of these constituencies. It also proposes a simple set of questions to evaluate if what’s being developed in Silicon Valley is really in the interest of those who value vibrant rural communities, farms, and the essential women and men who work the land.

Types Of Tech To Watch

What you do at work, from milking cows to pruning wine grapes to digging up root balls of nursery stock, is all considered “data” by the large technology companies. While you might think it’s just what you do, for them, it’s gold. They’re spending billions of dollars on developing sensors and other ways to track, monitor, and measure what you do and how you do it. They’ll then take all this information and use powerful computers to identify patterns and practices in that data. With that information in hand, they’ll create robots, drones, driverless tractors, and other technology designed to do your job without you. And to be clear, the only way they’ll know how to create these products is by harvesting your data.

Currently, four different types of technology are coming into the fields.

  1. The first are cameras, sensors and other products that will monitor and track your every action. Kind of like having a supervisor as your constant shadow. We call this surveillance technology.
  2. Then there’s the technology that’s literally designed to take your job, like tractors that don’t need drivers. We call this “replacement” technology, as it takes your job.
  3. Then there’s the technology that will allow you to lift more, reach higher, and literally, do jobs you currently can’t physically do. There will be suits called exoskeletons you’ll be required to wear which will give you more power and strength. But beware. Are you getting paid more to do more work? Also, very rarely do the people who design this technology first make sure it’s safe for people to use. By putting it on, you may very well be putting your health and safety at risk. We call these products “enhancement” technology.
  4. The last technology is what you dream up. We’re not kidding. People like you who work in the fields know more about what really happens out there than anybody else in all of agriculture. You’re truly the experts. You also know better than anyone else what could/should happen to make the important work you do better. So why shouldn’t people like you have good ideas that can both be turned into pro-worker technology and generate money for having done so? We call that type of technology worker-centric.

Why Data Is Powerful

The future is described by the designers of precision agriculture is not a foregone conclusion — as much as they’d like us to believe it is.

The technology, as currently being designed, is all about doing work in the fields. It promises to reduce, if not eliminate, the time one is on the land, in the fields and orchards. The technology, in order to create its promised value, will require the user to view video screens and computers to learn what insights it has garnered. Or in other words, this technology will increasingly turn farming into an office job.

Not only that, but the information you’ll be reviewing in your office will also be uploaded to giant servers far, far away. While ostensibly kept anonymous, this information, known as data, is hugely valuable to the tech giants. They’ll pull your data, your neighbors’, community, state, and country all together. They’ll then use powerful algorithms to identify patterns and practices that may not be immediately visible to those working the land. They’ll then come out with the next best and greatest product for you to buy. They must be only able to do this in large part because of all the data they have received from you and others for free.

This cycle will continue as each new product will more effectively capture your data. As these tech giants get more and more data, they’ll take more control over how and what happens on your farm.

Sound farfetched?

Check out the battle farmers have had with John Deere to protect the "right" to repair the equipment they own. Not only that but just like each year brings forward a fancier, more expensive John Deere, expect tech companies to do the same, charging ever more for their products.

It’s important to remember the people making these decisions about what happens on your farm are generally located far away from you and your community. Many of these people may have never even been on a farm in their lives. But because of the data they’re harvesting, they’ll have ever-increasing control over your farm. And you’ll probably never get to meet them.

Risks For Rural Communities

We know that place matters. As we watch precision agriculture coming into our communities and onto our farms, we must evaluate whether these products will increase or diminish the vibrancy of the places we call home. There are several concerns that rural communities have regarding this new presence and types of technology on the farm, including:

  • The impact on jobs
  • Less localized control
  • Loss of equity
  • Misguided promises of productivity

One easy indicator is if the technology will create or replace local jobs. You may hear those promoting precision agriculture acknowledge that, yes, there will be jobs lost on the farm, but there will be others created. Very rarely do they finish that sentence, saying where exactly. You can pretty much bet that those jobs won’t be in your community.

Another indicator is whether or not the proposed technology is going to increase local autonomy or diminish local control. Most, if not all, of the tech companies designing products for agriculture are not located in agricultural communities. Through the products they deploy on farms, they’ll harvest a wealth of information about soil composition, moisture rates, micro-climates, fertilization levels, and a myriad of other indicators on area farms. They’ll take all of that information, known as data, and aggregate it with information gathered from other growers in your community, the region, and even the country. They’ll then use powerful algorithms to identify trends and relationships that an ordinary person can’t see. The large tech companies will then use those insights, given to them free by farmers and workers in your community, to develop newer, better, more expensive products. Those products will be even better at harvesting data, increasing the speed by which more precise products are developed. Farmers in your community will feel compelled to keep up, paying people far, far away from your community high prices for this technology.

We’re already seeing an increasing number of growers having to sell equity positions in their operations, if not their entire farm, to investment firms in cities thousands of miles away from the actual farm, if not in foreign countries altogether. The exclusive driving interest of these new owners is margin and profit, not the welfare of the community where their land is located. What incentive will these outside owners have to support local efforts to pass school levies or other community-based revenue generators? On the contrary, they may see such measures as a counter to their desire to earn nothing less than an 8% return on their investment and actively fund “no” campaigns.

Finally, it’s important to remember that promises of efficiency and greater productivity aren’t always true. Look what happened to corn, soy, and wheat growers. As tractors and harvesters were invented and refined, many farmers couldn’t afford the new models, couldn’t compete with their neighbors, and sold out. Others committed suicide. Fast forward 50 years to a massive depopulation of rural communities where these crops are produced. Farms in these same regions are larger than they’ve ever been. And the kicker? Farmers today make, on average, about 50% of what they made 50 years ago, adjusting prices for inflation. So hardly a win for those growers, much less the thousands of communities that were decimated as a result.

As you see this technology coming out where you work, know what’s happening. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers about all of this. And remember, those of you who work in the fields are indeed the industry experts. Without your knowledge and data, much of what others are trying to do wouldn’t be possible.

Questions To Help Evaluate The Tech We Use

  • Does the proposed technology increase or decrease economic revenue into local coffers?
  • Does the proposed technology create or replace local jobs?
  • Does the proposed technology enhance, diminish or replace your direct interaction with the soil and plants?
  • Does the proposed technology increase or decrease local control over agricultural production?
  • Does the proposed technology make field work safer or more dangerous?
  • How is the purported value the proposed technology creates distributed between growers, workers, and the local community?

ERIK NICHOLSON has spent 30 years serving farmworkers through service to the United Farm Workers and PCUN, both labor unions. In his new capacity as an independent consultant with Pandion Strategy, he continues to foster innovation in agriculture, elevating the dignity of the essential women and men employed in the fields while building the industry's resilience.

More on Erik’s work here ︎︎︎