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Feeding the Future A MID-21st CeNTURY Agricultural Story

A high-pitched whizz interrupts the screeching of the cockatoos as a small wheeled robot zips along the furrows in the soil.

Unlike its owner, this little farmer is untroubled by the heat. In fact, it's been working around the clock.

Late last night, it finished dry-sowing a crop in anticipation of a light rain that will fall in about 49 minutes. Long gone were the days of pre-irrigating the soil; truly smart devices knew how to work with nature's timing.

The robot, and many others like it, are linked not just to high-precision quantum weather models, but an entire networked supply chain driven by artificial intelligence and petabytes of data: AusSupply. In ordering this crop, AusSupply has factored in everything from rainfall to the surging demand for hot crossed buns over Easter.

Driverless transport is another contribution of AI to the supply chain.

Though it has reduced waste by close to 80% compared to half a century ago, none of this is particularly new or interesting for the farm’s owners, Grant and Abbie Kelly.

This latest crop, though... it's something special.

It's based on an ancient native Australian millet that Grant’s Aboriginal ancestors, centuries ago, harvested on this very same land.

Old Gran used to tell him the stories as a kid. Stories about the Aunties gathering and threshing the stalks; of seedcakes and bread made from hardy native grains, and strange tales of Baiame and magic grindstones.

Old Gran.

For a curious young agricultural scientist, though, it was the stories of abundant harvests of panicum decompositum in even the hot Australian outback that had left the biggest impression.

This whole area they called Grass Country. 'Cause it can grow everywhere. No water here, but it's growing. Dirt, sand... doesn't matter.

There had to be at least as much data in Old Gran's cultural memory as the AusSupply.

With the high cost of water, like all raw materials these days, this panicum or "native millet" was a no-brainer for further research. Grant and Abbie’s company have created a hybrid using wheat genes, making it far more productive and commercially viable.

It's a highly adapted plant that needs minimal watering, which means Grant and Abbie can use the water saved on other crops.

The little robot stops suddenly.

Its camera can now see what sensors had picked up moments earlier: a squirrel-glider on the ground, looking rather lost. It must’ve fallen out of one of the many trees on this part of the farm, which is a transitional area between the intensive cropping zones and the dense bush zones that protect native critters like this.

Scanning the glider’s face, the robot discovers it’s S085900-003 again. She’s adventurous and has been found in this area four times previously. All known feral cats are currently far away. She has a 92% probability of survival.

The glider is not part of the farming operation, of course. But feeding 10 billion humans on a very finite planet requires a bit of give-and-take.

In a split-second, the robot is gone.

Grant and Abbie's farm is a thriving business.

They employ 23 human staff, including their daughter Amy, who splits her time between work and study.

Back in the office, Grant reviews the farm's latest biodiversity report.

Today Amy is reviewing simulated watering strategies for the farm. The computer has already given her the most efficient one for the season, but she thinks it can do better. It’s not a particularly creative piece of software, and she’s proven the value of a human mind before.

It was about three years ago, when, out of sheer curiosity, Amy had run the simulation with some totally wild inputs: a 100-year drought, off-the-chart solar radiation, huge temperature fluctuations. Her dad looked over her shoulder and laughed, ‘we’re growing on Mars now, are we?’

No one is joking now. The Kellys’ XPRIZE award for a viable Martian crop has pride of place on the mantelpiece, next to a photo of Old Gran. The prize money was reinvested in a research centre for off-Earth agriculture, which they’d named after her.

Thanks to the Kellys, the dream of greening the red planet seems closer than ever.

The Amy Kelly Centre for ExoAgriculture is in town.

On top is a rooftop garden, where Amy can leave her academic pursuits for a while and enjoy what she loves best: getting her hands dirty.

The garden here, like the greenspaces on most city rooftops, is partly subsidised by the government to help keep urban temperatures down, but it’s also something of a passion for Amy.

Recently the rooftop garden has become almost a thriving urban farm on the side. Amy is growing some heirloom cereal varieties among the vegetables; her mother's family are wheat farmers back to colonial times, and she loves to boast that this strain of wheat came from a sack brought over on the First Fleet.

Maybe there was something therapeutic in soil bacteria, but Abby found the rooftop garden could take her somewhere else in a way that VR really couldn't.

These unmodified heritage crops are seen as something of a delicacy, but Amy’s partner is not yet convinced. To him they taste perfectly ordinary and always need watering. Perhaps if it was someone else lugging buckets of recycled water up the stairs, he could be persuaded to enjoy the rooftop garden too.

Down at the local shops, the aroma of freshly baked bread is drawing customers to the Happy Loaf food truck.

You must get there early because the lunch rush never leaves leftovers. Nothing really leaves leftovers anymore.

The food truck itself, for instance, is a late-2020s touring bus – an ugly vehicle from an ugly time, but car parts from this era are easy to print. If its newer hydrogen engine holds out, it will easily go another 50 years. Contrasting curiously with the aging chassis, an eye-catching array of mirrors on the roof have just been extended to catch and focus the sun’s rays onto a solar oven. This fusion of elegant modern technology with dutifully maintained old junk makes the food truck a kind of emblem of the times.

You can get a half-dozen rolls for just $89.

The truck’s owner, Vince, bakes bread with a mix of the Kellys’ commercial Australian millet and their heritage wheat. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that you can taste the sun that grew the seed, the rains that watered it, the earth that nourished it, and the knowledge passed down the generations.

To others, he just makes a darn good sandwich.

About this story

This story is part of the Digital Stories learning resource from MDBA Education. For the accompanying teacher resource, visit the website.

For questions, comments, or feedback please email education@mdba.gov.au.

Credits:

Wikimedia Commons, Deepfield Robotics, Artem Smirnov and Vladimir Panchenko/Tuvie, Brooklyn Grange, Robert Garybosch, Kengo Kuma