The hi-tech farm where the boss is a com­puter

Work­ers do what the soft­ware tells them at a ‘ver­ti­cal farm’ in New Jersey that claims to be 100 times more pro­duc­tive than tra­di­tional farms, writes Aki Ito

Irish Independent - Farming - - FINANCE -

EACH morn­ing when she gets to work at Bow­ery Farm­ing Inc, Katie Morich changes into a clean uni­form, puts on a hair­net and cleans her hands with sani­tiser.

Then she con­sults a com­puter mon­i­tor dis­play­ing all the tasks she needs to ac­com­plish that day.

The to-do list’s author isn’t hu­man; it’s a piece of pro­pri­etary soft­ware that uses reams of data col­lected at the in­door farm to make im­por­tant de­ci­sions: how much to wa­ter each plant, the in­ten­sity of light re­quired, when to har­vest and so forth.

In short, Morich and her fel­low hu­man farm­ers do what the com­puter tells them to do. Morich (25) doesn’t mind tak­ing or­ders from a com­puter.

“I guess I do kind of re­port to the Bow­ery Oper­at­ing Sys­tem,” she laughs, re­fer­ring to the soft­ware her em­ployer de­vel­oped to run the so-called ver­ti­cal farm in a New Jersey in­dus­trial park.

Bow­ery says the ma­chines are con­stantly learn­ing how to grow crops more ef­fec­tively and are more than a match for the in­tu­ition of a sea­soned farmer.

“We don’t re­ally have to dou­ble-guess our­selves,” says Morich, who is the sub­ject of the lat­est episode of Bloomberg’s mini-doc­u­men­tary se­ries Next Jobs, which pro­files peo­ple in ca­reers that didn’t ex­ist a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Bow­ery is part of an emerg­ing in­dus­try promis­ing to bring new ef­fi­cien­cies to the mil­len­nia-old science of agri­cul­ture, fo­cus­ing for now on greens such as let­tuce, arugula and kale.

The start-up, based in New York and backed by lead­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley in­vestors, says au­to­ma­tion, space-sav­ing, ver­ti­cally stacked crops and a year­round grow­ing sea­son make its op­er­a­tions 100-plus times more pro­duc­tive per square foot than tra­di­tional farms.

Morich and Bow­ery de­clined to dis­close her salary, but the com­pany says she earns more than the me­dian $23,380 per year pulled down by a tra­di­tional Amer­i­can farm worker.

This is how economists hope tech­nol­ogy will help the econ­omy: by rais­ing work­ers’ pro­duc­tiv­ity and bol­ster­ing their wages over time.

It’s also worth not­ing that Morich’s job is far safer and less stren­u­ous than tend­ing the acreage of a con­ven­tional farm.

Of course, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence also has the po­ten­tial to kill jobs, and Morich’s role, how­ever new, is not im­mune.

Bow­ery hasn’t yet fig­ured out how to au­to­mate ev­ery­thing that needs to get done in the farm, but since she was hired less than two years ago, the com­pany has made progress: Such pro­cesses as seed­ing, once done by hand, are now com­pleted by ma­chines.

Morich says she doesn’t worry about job se­cu­rity, but econ­o­mist Erik Bryn­jolf­s­son is more The Sec­ond Ma­chine Age: Work, Progress and Pros­per­ity in a Time of Bril­liant Tech­nolo­gies.

“This could be prof­itable in the short and medium term,” he says, but as robots be­come more mo­bile and dex­ter­ous: “I would not count on hav­ing a job like that in 10 or 15 years.”

Nor should the rest of us. Ma­chines and au­to­mated soft­ware may dis­place 75 mil­lion work­ers by 2022, the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum pre­dicts.

“Tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been de­stroy­ing jobs, and it has al­ways been cre­at­ing jobs,” says Bryn­jolf­s­son.

“The an­swer is not to freeze in any par­tic­u­lar set of jobs or skills. It’s to be flex­i­ble and be ready for the new jobs, many of which haven’t been in­vented yet.”

Morich, for one, isn’t stand­ing still: in May, she was pro­moted to lead a team of farm­ers, which left her con­fronting a whole new set of chal­lenges. She’s been work­ing long hours ahead of the open­ing of Bow­ery’s sec­ond fa­cil­ity.

Once things set­tle down, she plans to read Man­ag­ing For Dum­mies.

THE MA­CHINES ARE LEARN­ING HOW TO GROW CROPS MORE EF­FEC­TIVELY

Bloomberg

PHOTO: DAVID WIL­LIAMS/ BLOOMBERG

scep­ti­cal. “If a task doesn’t draw on hu­man cre­ativ­ity or other hu­man strengths like in­ter­per­sonal skills, then it’s a can­di­date for au­to­ma­tion,” says Bryn­jolf­s­son, a pro­fes­sor at the MIT Sloan School of Man­age­ment and co-author of The Bow­ery Farm­ing start-up says its op­er­a­tions are 100-plus times more pro­duc­tive per square foot than tra­di­tional farms.

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