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Cultibotics as a quality of life issue

July 26, 2009

Your typical farm raises at most a few crops, frequently only one. Because it’s what I know, and because it’s in practically every processed food you can buy, let’s take wheat as an example.

 

Wheat comes in two main growing patterns, winter and spring. Winter wheat is planted in early fall, where winters are relatively mild, grows to a lawn-like few inches in height before winter, and then resumes growing as winter recedes, and is ready for harvest in late spring or early summer. Spring wheat is planted in late winter or early spring and is ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Either way the ground looks much like a disaster zone between harvest and replanting, especially with old-school tillage which begins with plowing under the stubble from the last crop, and, like most disaster zones, it’s a prolific source of dust. To live in wheat country is to live with a landscape in this mutilated condition several months out of each year.

 

The fault isn’t so much with the technology in use (aside from the choice of tillage regimes), but is rather a result of monoculture, the planting of a single crop year after year. Even using standard tillage practices, something as simple as a crop rotation system might have wheat harvest immediately followed by the planting of something else, clover for instance. However, much of wheat country gets insufficient rainfall to support more than one crop per year. In fact, without irrigation, one crop every two years is more common on the high plains, meaning that even during the height of growing season half the land under cultivation continues to look desolate and contribute to the dust-load in the lower atmosphere, at the cost of some of its own fertility.

 

Nothing about the equipment in common use precludes crop rotations, and row cropping systems can manage two, or even three crops in the ground at the same time, but three is about the limit. Using conventional methods, intermixing a dozen or more species, other than for pasture or hay, is unthinkable, no matter what benefit might result. So is continuous cropping unthinkable. You can grow pumpkins among the corn stalks in the fall and snow peas climbing up them in the early spring, but sooner or later you’ll need to turn under the debris, if not to prepare a seed bed for more corn then to keep the thistles in check. [Using conventional methods you can’t simply uproot the corn stalks and gather up the pumpkin and pea vines and toss it all on the compost pile, at least not working around corn sprouts that were planted through the debris.]

 

For continuous cropping, you need more deft handling of soil and plant materials than implements pulled by tractors can provide. You need something more like what a gardener does.

 

With continuous cropping there’s always something in the ground to break the wind and keep down the dust, and while the field will never have the look of ripe crop of monoculture wheat, all ready for harvest at once, it will also never look like a desert, nor, with proper handling, like a thistle patch.

 

What you get is a landscape that’s more varied throughout the year, but not so starkly punctuated by season.

 

What you also get is more variety in production. Instead of wheat, wheat, and more wheat you might also get squash, beans, onions, peppers, millet, and so forth, as well as perennials like sand plums, apricots, currents, and mulberries, all the makings of a healthy diet.

 

The key to making this possible is dexterity combined with attention to detail, such as could only, until recently, be supplied by people. The key to making it practical is robotics.

 

To the extent there is any close connection between the quality of land management and the quality of life that land supports, it follows that the quality of life achievable through the best available land management method will be better than what can be achieved without it.

 

You cannot economically duplicate, by any other means, the quality of land management that is achievable through the appropriate application of robotics.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

John Payne .. read more

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