The future of farming: Q&A with futurist Glen Hiemstra

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Farm and Dairy spoke with Glen Hiemstra, founder of Futurist.com, about the future of farming and agriculture.

Glen Hiemstra is a respected expert on future trends. He’s worked with companies like The Home Depot, Boeing, Land O Lakes, John Deere and Microsoft. Glen has also advised government agencies and organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration Advanced Research program and the Washington Forest Protection Association.

Glen often meets with companies to discuss emerging trends in economics, demographics, energy, the environment, science, communications and technology.

Here’s what Glen had to say:

F&D: What exactly is a futurist? What do you do?

GH: A futurist is somebody who explores three questions about the future.

The three questions are: What is probable in the future? What is possible, sort of what’s outside the boundaries of the way we usually think about our business, or what is a sort of  “black swan” event that could happen, that we might want to take into account? What’s preferred is the third question. That’s the strategic planning question.

Futurists like myself usually give talks or seminars about the first two questions. People are really interested in future trends and where the world might be going, according to those who watch for trends.

Organizations tend to be really interested in that third question, “What’s our preferred future?”

That’s essentially what we do: presentations, writing and consulting work around those questions.

Futurists, like myself, tend to be called when people are interested in a little bit longer term view. Most organizations do regular strategic planning cycles, maybe looking 5 years ahead. But now and then they want to look 10 years ahead, and that’s when they call me.


F&D: You’re not looking into a crystal ball, right? There’s no wizardry involved. What kind of methods do you use to try to accurately predict these future trends?

GH: Well, there are two or three primary methodologies. One is typically called trend-analysis. It’s just a kind of labor-intensive collection of data material from whatever sources you can find it. Whether it is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or in the case of agriculture, The Farm Bureau. It might be demographic trend information. It might also be cultural trend information that you get by reading other people’s opinions about it and keeping track of things over time.

While there are some computerized tools for forecasting, which are available, which I’m not trained in and do not use myself, most futurists still, in the end, rely on good old pattern recognition. What makes sense. If you logically look at this, how does it all add up?


F&D: Now that we got those two questions out of the way, let’s move on to farming and agriculture. Briefly explain to me what you think the farm of the future could look like?

GH: Super question. I am actually thinking about that now because of a talk I have coming up with the directors of the Farm Credit Bank, though they want me to talk less about agriculture and more about big-picture stuff.

Here’s a couple thoughts on what a future farm will look like. Number one, undoubtedly, a future farm will be much more attuned to the biological basis of the soil. Not that we don’t know a lot about that now and we don’t pay attention to it. But, there are concerns because the world will need much more food between now and 2050, because of the growing global population and the growing appetite of the global population.

So the question is how are we going to do that? And the big keyword in every industry, including agriculture, is sustainability. How can we do that in a way which produces more, but at the same time preserves the ability of the soil and farmland to produce in the future.

Every year that clicks by over the next 20 years, that’s going to be more of an issue. The good news is, we’ll know more about how to do that. So I think the farm of the future will ultimately be doing some things differently in terms of using fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, and so on.

That will evolve. It will not be the same, but exactly what it will look like isn’t clear to me. I could vacillate in the big debate between what we now think of as traditional agriculture versus what we think of as organic agriculture, which is of course in old-fashioned terms, more traditional.

How that will all play out is, I think, the big question. The reason that’s a big question is because it will have to deal with the ability of the soil to provide enough food and with what happens with the evolving climate.

F&D: Sure

The second thing dealing with the future of agriculture that I find very intriguing is that I’m pretty persuaded by the growing interest in the local food movement or the organic food movement. Basically, it comes down to especially local food.

I think that we will see, because you can do it economically, there’s a whole generation interested in it, and it kind of fits in the value shift going on around the world, there will be a viable local agricultural community in places where it’s sort of disappeared.

Whole regions are interested in that, New York, Washington and part of the Midwest. We will still see growth in very large-scale agriculture, but we’ll also see equivalent growth in very small-scale, even personal scale, agriculture. This interest in healthy, local food, I don’t see that disappearing. I see it increasing and it has to have an impact over the next two decades.


F&D: Is it fair to say that farming and agriculture in these metropolitan areas will be more important moving forward?

GH: Yes. It will be more important. With a co-author, Denis Walsh, a sustainability futurist from Canada, I’ve written a book called “Millennial City.” It’s really a look at the future of cities.

What we know is that an increasing percentage of the global population moves to, and lives in, cities, which is counter-intuitive to what I just said about small farms. They will want food grown within 250, 350 miles. And that means more local agriculture in and around cities.

I’m very fascinated by the very futuristic, mostly still on the drawing board, images of future cities with large food-growing operations within the city. On the facades of high-rise buildings, or various kinds of hydroponic or fast-growing environments.

In part two, Glen answers questions from Farm and Dairy’s online community. He then addresses the idea of drone in agriculture and then gives an optimistic view on the future of farming.

Read part two

2 Comments

  1. Adelia Hitt says:

    Trends are important, so is being able to flexible, as well as knowing the different things that are being tried successfully and if they will work in your local environment. On a global perspective we are going to continue to have problems with fuel, but I think the day may come when water and water rights are going to be just as important. Engineering irrigation systems on a global level may be one of the jobs of the future. Learning to use the land more efficiently is essential. Crop rotation and knowing what the soil is best suited for along with the demand for that crop is good farming . Knowing what people will buy and who will pay top dollar for it is good business. I can remember a time when gluten allergies were unheard of but now there is a whole market for gluten free products. I come from a time when Diet For a Small Planet and organic food was all the rage. Vegetarianism is still on the increase as more and more baby boomers are developing heart disease and cancer. Many people are still seeking wholeness in nutrition. On the other hand there is still a demand for bigger and better. Marbled beef and bigger poultry and increased milk supply can bring in more money. Those who work in agriculture have to know the trends, know their clientele, and be flexible enough to go with the flow

    • Will Flannigan says:

      Adelia,

      You bring up a great point about being flexible. I think that’s a great quality to have in ANY business, not just farming and agriculture.

      Technology influences everybody, but that technology is changing so rapidly that once we get accustomed to one way of doing things, we need to readjust to new tech.

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