Future Farm: A New England Dairy and the Next Agricultural Revolution
Invested spends a late-summer day in East Canaan, CT, talking with a dairy farm owner, his manager-daughter, and two farm employees about the impacts of AI augmentation on their business, the work, the cows, and their lives in general.
Suzanne Cummings is project manager for Invested and Regional and Community Outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Dairies like Freund’s Farm in East Canaan, CT, are accustomed to economic swings. “Historically, there have been three-year cycles—three years down, one year up,” says Amanda Freund, third-generation dairy farmer and marketing director for her family’s side business. “It’s during that positive year that farmers make needed investments—new tractors, buildings, and technology to support them through the next downturn.” Five years ago Freund’s had one of those profitable years, enabling this family-run, 300-cow dairy to plan ahead a couple decades for their future farm by investing in five milking robots.
Freund’s was first in Connecticut to adopt robotic milkers, coming to that decision after much family deliberation and talking extensively with a number of neighboring-state farms already using the technology. “They were definitely more expensive compared to conventional milking,” Amanda admits, but the machines’ ability to service the entire herd 24/7/365—and on each individual cow’s preferred milking schedule, to boot—addressed a huge pain point for dairy farmers: being stuck in a milking parlor 12 to 15 hours every day. With the time that robotic milkers free up, it becomes possible to pursue personal goals and interests like traveling or volunteering, to spend more time with family, and to explore one’s own creativity. Amanda says that knowing she and subsequent generations can meet those needs makes it easier to carry on the family tradition.
“That’s really the nut of why we wanted to adopt that kind of technology,” adds Matt, Amanda’s dad and a second-generation owner of Freund’s Farm. For Matt, the long-term plan with AI is really a retirement plan, as he looks to step down after a lengthy career and pass along a business that his kids want to continue. One that is less backbreaking than his own experience, stimulating enough to keep the family interested, environmentally friendly—always one of Freund’s top priorities—and, of course, financially viable and resilient in the inevitable economic downturns.
Investing in AI has given the Freunds an opportunity to expand beyond their root industry. As Matt puts it, “It’s given us that spare time to cook up crazy things that make us, hopefully, a little better income than what the dairy is doing currently.” Cue Matt’s invention of CowPots, biodegradable planting containers made from cow manure, which the Freunds manufacture as a side business. An ecologically beneficial way to recycle the abundant free by-product of their operation, CowPots also provide an urgently needed supplement to the farm’s bottom line, which has been suffering, along with so many dairies, from an unanticipated five consecutive years of depressed milk prices. And Freund’s proprietary manufacturing process for the pots employs custom robots too.
According to Amanda, the tech upgrades have also allowed them to give both their managers and employees an opportunity to engage in much more skilled labor on the farm. “Beforehand there were monotonous tasks like milking twice daily or pushing up feed.” The latter is now accomplished by the sassy Juno robot, renamed “Bruno” by the Freunds. He travels the barn corridor every 60 minutes, bringing the cows’ food closer to them while ringing the dinner bell with his chirps. (See Bruno doing his chores and misbehaving!) “Now that those chores are being handled by robotics, we can engage our employees in artificial insemination classes—the other AI!” Amanda says. Without a bull on the farm, breeding is done by the workers. They also now do the hoof trimming, which used to be hired out, as well as the care and cleaning of the calves and most tasks related to maintaining general cow health.
Matt sees an upgrade in the quality of the work—and of the worker, too. “Now the guys coming to our facility have to be trained to use this technology, but they have to think about it. They have to be able to know what the computer is saying, how it works, and when it’s wrong versus when it’s right. So they’re on a higher level, and it’s really fun when your employees are motivated and thinking beyond just the job.”
There’s also increased flexibility for the workers. “I feel like I have more freedom,” shares Julio Cruz, a Freund’s employee. “I can leave when I need to, and this is a privilege the machines afford us.” Javier Rodriguez, a Freund’s Farm Market and CowPots employee, concedes, “It’s been a little complicated learning this new technology, keeping up with the pace, but at the same time, it’s made life easier for me and my family.”
What about the main economic drivers of the business? Do the cows love AI? Both managers and workers resoundingly say YES! Julio explains, “They are making their own decisions about when they want to be milked. They spend their time relaxing, with fans to keep them cool and the flies away. They have waterbeds to keep them comfortable and happy.” Amanda adds, “On a dairy, the basis of every decision made is to benefit our cows … to always keep improving their quality of life, care, and nutrition. That’s why we were really excited about the opportunity to give our cows a very different lifestyle than they had with conventional milking. Because it was going to be to their advantage as well as ours.” The cows also wear rumination collars—much like bovine Fitbits—which are used to track each individual animal’s behavior. Amanda continues, “With this technology, I think our management decisions are generally better, and we’re able to react much more quickly when a cow’s not feeling well, because we’re capturing data about if she’s getting up out of bed, if she’s chewing—so we have a much more intimate relationship with our herd.”
Even with AI’s demonstrated benefits to this industry, there is always room for improvement. For example, Javier and Julio—both Latinos, like many U.S. agricultural workers—would love to see the machine interfaces offered in Spanish. “All the robots here are in English,” Julio notes. “If they could be adjusted to different languages, that would be a good option.” Then there’s the natural uncertainty about future employment prospects in an AI-enhanced world. But despite the trepidation that comes with all change, there is acknowledgement that the lives of workers in this industry are improving.
Those we spoke with at Freund’s recognize that things are only getting more automated, and technology is playing an increasingly larger role in American agriculture. The upside is that the work will be less physical as AI assists with more tasks. And AI augmentation is already adding greater depth and fulfillment to agricultural occupations, allowing workers at all levels to leverage their uniquely human strengths, such as adaptability, creativity, and empathy.
Make no mistake. The dairy industry is struggling, with many external forces negatively affecting producers. “We are still optimistic that there is a way to stay viable economically as a dairy farm, and I do think these robots are part of it,” says Amanda. “The future is here, and we need to always be taking advantage of the newest information available.”
The robots at work on Freund’s Farm show that AI augmentation isn’t just for manufacturing assembly lines. The farm is only one example of what workplaces in a variety of fields could look like soon if the technology is introduced in a well-planned way to complement the work of skilled humans. The hope is that as this technology continues to be developed for a growing range of industries, it will be done thoughtfully and collaboratively with the businesses and workers it serves and with the benefit of people in all segments of our population in mind. Done right, AI augmentation can be a boon to society and free up humans to be more human.
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