Photograph Courtesy Land O'Lakes
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Bodie Drake, field operations manager at Algenol, grew up on a beef cattle farm in Arkansas. Today, instead of caring for cows, he’s looking after algae.
Photograph Courtesy Land O'Lakes

Ditch the Overalls: The Reality of Modern Farming Will Surprise You

Advanced technology and thinking will feed and save our growing world.

By Tim Scott

A few weeks ago, I sat with a third-generation California dairy farmer named Dave Ribeiro. I asked him what he wished more people knew about farmers. He gave me a wry smile and said, “That we walk among you. We look like you and talk like you. We have advanced degrees and hobbies, just like you.”

Take Dave: He’s an ordinary guy with a music degree who still does gigs for fun. And if you walked past him on the street, you’d never think, “There goes a farmer.” In fact, he’s particularly amused that the last time he traveled, someone mistook him for an old acquaintance — an East Coast surgeon.

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Dave Ribeiro (center) is a third-generation dairy farmer and principal owner of Rib-Arrow Dairy in Tulare, California. The farm has grown and advanced each generation. Today, along with milking about 1,500 cows three times a day, it grows its own feed and employs 23 people, including Dave’s sons Tyler (far right) and Cameron (far left).

Is someone like Dave who you picture when you think of a farmer? Probably not. I’d bet that most people picture a man wearing overalls. You know that universal icon for agriculture? Yeah, that guy. I can tell you, that does not represent Dave or any of the many other farmers I have gotten to know.

Farming takes business acumen — and, yes, an MBA more than comes in handy — as well as a broad knowledge of modern technology, environmental science and, increasingly, social media savvy. Not to mention agronomy and plant biology.

Not only do we have to throw out our stereotypes of farmers, but farming as a whole doesn’t look much like it used to either.

We recently sent a team out to cover the length and breadth of the country to share what modern farming looks like — and what it might look like in the future. They found themselves in some unexpected places, like a parking lot in a transitional neighborhood in Brooklyn at sunrise. That’s where they met a new crop of young farmers who are trying to bring fresh greens closer to urban eaters by growing them in high-tech indoor vertical farms.

In a scrubby Florida field under the flight path of an airport (and next door to some grazing cows), they discovered farmers with PhDs growing algae that might someday fuel our cars. And in a modern dairy in California, they geeked out with farmers who are using data and technology to take the best possible care of their animals. (Seriously, they have more information on the individuals in the herd than most of us can get from our fitness trackers.)

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Two milkers — human workers — quickly wash the cows’ teats and attach the milking machines. As soon as the machines are done, they detach automatically from the udders, and the cows follow each other out the door, just in time to find fresh feed waiting for them.

These farmers all spend their days in very different ways — and none of them looks like the stereotypical farmer in the icon — but they’re all working on new ways to solve the same problem: feeding our planet.

That’s the key. Feeding all of us is going to take all of us working together. Not only do we need to expand our idea of what farming looks like, but we also need to expand our view of where solutions can come from: agronomists, geneticists, and farmers — yes. Techies, coders, software engineers — yes. And also builders, tinkerers, inventors, dreamers, activists, still-gigging musicians and ordinary eaters like you who want to make the future a little better.

Land O’Lakes has been a farmer-owned co-op for nearly a century. Both our legacy and our future are built on diverse perspectives. Our 3,963 farmer-members won’t let us sit back and bet on the status quo. They push us to have honest conversations about how we’re all going to feed the future. Won’t you join us?

Tim Scott is the Chief Marketing Officer for Land O’Lakes, Inc.

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