If agriculture is to continue to feed the world, it needs to become more like manufacturing, says Geoffrey Carr. Fortunately, that is already beginning to happen
TOM ROGERS is an almond farmer in Madera County, in California’s Central Valley. Almonds are delicious and nutritious. They are also lucrative. Californian farmers, who between them grow 80% of the world’s supply of these nuts, earn $11 billion from doing so. But almonds are thirsty. A calculation by a pair of Dutch researchers six years ago suggested that growing a single one of them consumes around a gallon of water. This is merely an American gallon of 3.8 litres, not an imperial one of 4.5 litres, but it is still a tidy amount of H2O. And water has to be paid for.
Technology, however, has come to Mr Rogers’s aid. His farm is wired up like a lab rat. Or, to be more accurate, it is wirelessed up. Moisture sensors planted throughout the nut groves keep track of what is going on in the soil. They send their results to a computer in the cloud (the network of servers that does an increasing amount of the world’s heavy-duty computing) to be crunched. The results are passed back to the farm’s irrigation system—a grid of drip tapes (hoses with holes punched in them) that are filled by pumps.