I’d like you to try something. Take a minute, close your eyes, and picture a farmer—what they wear, what they do, and the tools they use to do it. If you’re like many people across North America, you probably pictured someone like Old McDonald on his farm. He’s wearing overalls, riding a rickety tractor, and plowing his fields by hand. But that’s definitely not how Northerly grows. 

In the past, farmers were society’s linchpins, and harvests were a community event. You could shake the hand that planted, tended, and harvested your produce. Today, we’ve lost that connection between farmers and the communities they feed. And as a result, there’s a disconnect between people and where their food comes from. We step into air-conditioned supermarkets, stroll up and down aisles of colorful packages, and never stop to wonder how our food is grown, produced, and sold. Even further from our minds? The hard work and financial risk that farmers take on each year.

There’s a pervasive stereotype when it comes to modern farmers. Most of the general population sees farming as either an outdated holdover from a simpler time. Or worse, they see it as a faceless, mechanized industry in permanent search for profits. In fact, according to Kelly Millenbah, an associate dean of Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, modern farming often gets chalked off as “plows, sows, and cows.

And why wouldn’t it? For being such an important industry, agriculture has had one of the worst PR teams around. When I first meet people, they ask what I do. When I say I’m a farmer, they’re shocked. For many, I’m the first farmer they’ve ever met. Unlike sports cars, alcohol, and tech startups, we don’t have flashy commercials or celebrity spokespeople.

It wasn’t always like this. After all, this continent was founded on agriculture. In the early 1800s, over 90% of the labor force was ranchers, farmers, or farm workers. Today, that number is less than 2%. But that doesn’t mean we need less food. In fact, fewer farmers are trying to feed more people than ever before. This year, the global population his 7.7 billion. In the next 20 years, it’ll pass 9 billion. So how do we feed a growing population—while being good to the earth—in an era where there’s less land and more water shortages and young, able-bodied people continue to leave rural settings for urban centers?

Sustainable agriculture builds on the foundation of modern farming

Over the last 50 years, we’ve made a lot of progress in the agriculture industry. We moved from animal to machine power. We’ve innovated processes and systems that let us grow more food, faster. But the social and environmental costs have been high.

A new global survey by the Enough Movement shows most folks don’t know how agriculture works. They’re tired of unanswered questions about how their food is raised. They want to know how farmers use resources to care for animals and crops. The survey also found that over half of the respondents believe most farms are corporate-run. Because many distrust large corporations, this misperception means many consumers don’t trust the people growing their food.

Common concerns include health and safety, as well as environmental impacts. Consumers worry about irresponsible waste management, inefficient resource use, and long supply chains. And they’re right to worry. According to the Agricultural Sustainability Institute of UC Davis industrial farming has led to topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

We’re bringing farming back to the people

At Northerly, we know sustainable agriculture will save the world. That means repairing broken bonds between farmers and consumers. It also means returning to a system that works with, not against, nature to feed people on a global scale. The truth is that a lot of people around the world can’t afford to buy expensive, organically-grown food. Sustainable agriculture is working to feed everybody, not just the people who can afford to pay high prices.

Millenbah believes that today’s farmers have to be more adaptable than ever before. “When I think of people who grow food for a living, I see it as one of the most complicated, complex jobs around,” she says. “You have to know about soil and soil chemistry, plants, and how they grow, issues with water, technology, how to handle plants and animals, business matters, and communication. It’s enormously interdisciplinary.”

So how is Northerly harnessing technology and science to feed our communities and the world?

Data-driven crop management

Imagine knowing exactly how much water an acre of chickpeas needs to optimize growth. Or being able to simulate how fertilizers will impact your soil’s nitrogen levels. Through advanced software and AI, we can optimize soil health, track productivity, and make predictions for future crops. With hard data and analytics, Northerly grows healthier, more sustainable crops while using resources more efficiently. 

Satellite imagery

Northerly uses state-of-the-art satellite imagery to watch our fields, from planting to harvest. We can check for subtle changes in growth patterns that help us predict and prevent disease. These images allow us to pinpoint and address problems in the field with more accuracy than ever before. We know exactly where and when we need boots on the ground.

Precision farming

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but love for the tractors, combines, and tillers of generations past. But these days, we use equipment that allows us to be more productive not by the acre, but by the square inch. GPS guidance and self-driving vehicle systems take the strain off both farm workers and the land by reducing work-related fatigue and compaction from heavy equipment, respectively.  We’re working smarter and safer than ever before.

Advanced technology—from seed genetics to machinery—is redefining sustainable agriculture. We’ve moved away from Old McDonald, who planted his crops and let nature run its course. In order to support the global population, today’s farmers need to adapt. That means ensuring maximum productivity and food production per acre, while having the least amount of environmental impact. It’s also about ensuring affordable food for the less fortunate, and maintaining healthy soil for future generations. Science and technology is the new sustainability.

Thanks to these advancements, Northerly grows 125 million servings of food, every single year. So close your eyes again and think of a modern farmer. Hopefully, you’re picturing a scientist and community leader who is determined to feed the world and save the earth using advanced technology. That’s how Northerly grows: for the grainer good.

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