Ruralist Lament: The Ghost (and) the Machine

Like the few families that have lived on this place since 1780, my wife and I have farmed the sandy loam, using the tools at hand. Mostly, the tillage and soil amendment spreading have been powered by old tractors and equipment from the 1940s and ‘50s when New Deal farm policies allowed people who farmed at a modest scale to make a living and yes, buy new equipment. We bought most to our “vintage” tractors for less than $2000. They work and usually “need work” to keep them serviceable. However, none of them require satellite guidance, computers, or periodic software updates.

While they burn gas or off-road diesel, their castings were forged many decades ago. Their life cycle contributions to today’s “carbon budget”are (I think) fairly modest——especially compared to the much larger machines manufactured today using fracked fossil energy products pulled out of the Earth’s crust at great financial/environmental cost.

Most every calorie of food energy in America has long come at the cost of  fossil energy, As Michael Pollan pointed out in his 2008 public “(Letter) To the Farmer-in-Chief,”  we now have. “…. transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel to produce a single calorie of supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gasses.”

Of course thanks to decades of federal anti-farmer policy and the suicidal concept of consigning food production to “The Market” we have a vanishingly small percentage of experienced people who indulge in farming.

And so, I was interested to see  local papers’ recent accounts of a nearby entrepreneur’s being awarded $250,000 under Maine’s “Clean Energy Innovation Challenge.” This reportedly will be added to the “nearly $500,000 from ‘passionate angel investors’ both locally and across the country.”

The aim is to create “green-collar jobs” and produce “low-cost electric farming robots.” The stories report that the “mars rover” style machine  currently under development is to “travel up and down rows of vegetables….mark(ing) locations of where to place plants and record(ing) those positions using GPS——that way, when the robot comes through to agitate the soil around the plants without disturbing the plants themselves, it can do so without using sight technology….”

Don’t get me wrong, this is a less sociopathic use of GPS  tech than guiding powerful munitions into Iraqi/Afghan/Syrian farmers markets, wedding parties, and aid worker’s driveways a world away, but…….. Really?

Reading on: “We’re trying to create a robot that is not any faster than a person, at this point. It drives at walking speed. It moves tools around the same level a person would.”

Presumably “the person,” now liberated from what’s described as “the back-breaking and monotonous parts of farming” will likely have more time for checking FaceBook/InstaGram/Twitter feeds and greater participation in the air-conditioned World of Screens, while robotically expanding  local agricultural production “beyond the saturated farmer’s market distribution model.”

The ag-robot is projected to retail for $25,000.

At the risk of revealing the dirty little secret of our life’s work—— like many farmers we’ve been walking those plant rows for decades sometimes pushing a rather primitive seed planter, sometimes wielding a sharp hoe between the plants guided only by our standard-issue blood-powered “sight technology” to rogue-out weeds that the relic 1940’s-era Allis G tractor couldn’t reach with its mounted cultivator sweeps and  (“ground-driven”) rotating rubber “fingers.”

Yes, it’s a bit primitive I guess but it seems to work as long as we pay attention to what we’re doing. (Not having a cell phone helps.) Thanks to widely-shared research funded by the USDA  some farmers have converted their old Allis Gs to electric power. It’s pretty straightforward since the tractor’s engine is hanging back behind the axel like the VW Beetles some of us relics remember. We haven’t done such a conversion as yet, but it wouldn’t cost anything like $25,000, were we so inclined.

But reading about this “angel” and State-funded fetish aimed at robotizing farmer-functions I thought of Wendell Berry’s short 1985 essay, “What Are People For?” Years ago Berry observed that decades of concerted policy detaching “less efficient” producers from the landscape and their replacement by ever larger machines had now led to Dust Bowl – scale soil erosion rates. Based on the available evidence Berry wondered whether perhaps the “obsolescence of human beings is now our social goal”….. based on…. “our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land.” He bemoaned  “our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization.”

Perhaps such quibbles are now seen as merely quaint in our zealously distracted TikTok land: Just the grousing of aged-out phantoms unable or unwilling to get with the program of green-washed tech-idolatry.


Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: