The more I walk, the better I farm. Sun, rain, wind, cold, heat, whatever the weather, I walk to observe and to deepen my relationship to my fields. But in that, I seem to be moving against the trend.
“Now no one needs to go to the field . . . You get the data every five minutes on your laptop.” I read this quote in a recent article on new tech in agriculture . Don’t get me wrong: tech is great and I am a huge geek. Which isn’t that unusual, actually – us farmers have been tinkering with tech to increase efficiency for millennia. The business of growing things can be back breaking and ridiculously labor intensive. Anything that allows us to get more work done more efficiently and be less tired at the end of the day is a good thing! And with the labor crisis, robots being developed for use in the field to replace humans like in other industries look like a good thing.
At RSV, there are 200 acres of premium wine grapes under my care – hundreds of thousands of individual grapevines, erect on steel skeletons, blurring into neat rows of green that march to the horizon. Once, while sampling grapes during harvest, I strapped on a pedometer to count my steps. I ended up taking 8,000 steps that day – close to four miles – in a couple short hours. It must be millions of steps now, passing again and again through hundreds of rows, in my decade at Sinskey. Why wouldn’t I want a robot to do that for me? Because, even now, every step is new, the vines ever-changing.
At some point, tech becomes a disadvantage, allowing farmers to farm larger and larger acreages without actually ever setting foot on them. Thousands of acres of wine grapes are getting pretty close to being farmed virtually – why walk outside to see what’s going on when it all comes instantly to my laptop? I have NDVI photos, soil moisture sensors, vineyard irrigation monitoring that can turn my pumps on and off, monitor the flow rate and check for leaks, weather stations that send their data to the web. In a few years, I might add robots pruning, leafing, thinning, pest scouting and sending their robotic visions to my laptop. What could possibly be left to see when I go outside?
But tech favors homogeneity; it doesn’t grasp the gestalt or see the nuance. When each vine is vibrant, humming, full of energy and living things, how to tease out that individual tonality from the symphony of a vineyard when observing from a virtual distance? The only way I can hear this life, check in with what is going on, is to walk the fields. Feel the life beneath my boots, see the results in the vines. Know in my gut what needs to be done to weave the individual voices into an orchestra. I can’t get this data from my laptop.
I forget that, sometimes. It’s easy to make the excuse that I don’t have enough time. I admit, I could probably use a robot or two! There’s so much to manage, so many projects to plan and finish. Plus, I still have human eyes in the field beyond my own – how can I justify time spent away from my desk when my staff, my fellow farmers, will touch each individual vine at least ten times before we finally pick the grapes? We are a team, and a good one at that, our livelihoods intertwined with these vinous beings. But I often still can’t make a decision until I see it, feel it, hear it, for myself.
There is no replacement for my own footsteps in the fields.
Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram