early VW car factory in Austria

Soil is not a factory worker

Soil is agriculture’s equivalent of the factory worker replaced by machines; initially more efficient, works longer hours without tiring, and increases output. But is food an industrial process?

Suppose you want to manufacture a motor vehicle that customers can purchase at a realistic price.

As Henry Ford so famously figured out, you will need a production line where the vehicle parts are bolted, welded and sprayed onto a chassis in a logical sequence by a host of skilled workers. 

The production line turned a jumbled mass of components into a shiny new model T Ford—resources plus energy and labour go in and out come a salable product.

Modern production lines have honed this basic idea to add exceptional efficiency with the help of computers and robots.

Fields as factories

After World War II, the Green Revolution in agriculture applied similar efficiencies to food production. 

Along with mechanised food processing and supply chains, farmers had access to extensive irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pest control, crop varieties resistant to diseases and drought, high mechanisation, adaptability to industrial processes, and even gene manipulations. 

Overall it was a technology and science revolution with crop varieties chosen in the lab, mainly based on productivity, and introduced into fields through mechanised tillage, fertilisers, and pesticides, to standardise soil conditions across vast areas. 

Farming became an industry with fields more like factories. 

The livestock sector intensified too, with production facilities able to bring food, water and shelter to the animals rather than letting them wander to find their sustenance. These high-density facilities are often called factory farms. Nutrients and energy went in; protein came out.

In recent times, technology has added layers of precision to these systems with remote and on-ground sensors feeding information on soil and plant properties into strategies that can optimise the allocation of water, nutrients and pesticides.

precision agrisculture with machines running down bullet straight rows of crops
Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash

Factories offer control

Here is the thing about factories—they are super efficient at converting raw materials and energy into goods. 

They must be consistent, conforming, and predictable to achieve this efficiency. Any risks must be evident and quickly neutralised, with breakdowns rapidly located and  fixed. Everything needs to be under control. 

And the agriculture factory is no different.

Farmers make fields and farms as uniform as possible to consistently control the growth of plants and animals. Costly inputs of nutrients and energy are channelled into usable crops and livestock products. Add economies of scale to this approach and intensive agriculture can become profitable.

A shirty description of intensive food production is not a dig at big agriculture dominating the marketplace,  even though there are obvious problems with markets that are never as perfect as they claim. The purpose of this anecdote is to say that humans are genius at controlling the environment for their ends—the ultimate expression of command and control. 

Over half of agriculture is food production subsidised by energy and nutrients. And humanity cannot do without this system. It feeds billions of people, especially urban dwellers, with no apparent means of providing food for themselves. 

And for the most part, it feeds them reliably, consistently and with foods they like.

These humans have promptly taken the vast amounts of food that the efficiency of industrialised agriculture produces and converted it into more humans.

Control means we get what we want, and so it persists.

The factory floor

The birthplace of the iconic Ford Model T automobile, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan, still stands today as one of the world’s most significant automotive heritage sites.

Built in 1904 in the neighbourhood of Milwaukee Junction, the late-Victorian style brick building was modelled after New England textile mills and measures 402 feet long and 56 feet wide over three stories, with 67,000 square feet of floor space. There are 355 windows, which provided light and ventilation in the days before air conditioning.

In September of 1907, Henry Ford purchased a 130-acre tract of land in Highland Park, Michigan. On this site, the Ford Motor Company built the factory that contained Ford’s moving assembly line to mass produce the Model T. 

Assembly-line production allowed the price of the Model T touring-car version to be lowered from $850 in 1908 (equivalent to about 18 months salary for an average wage) to less than $300 in 1925 (4 months salary).

These buildings no longer house machines and workers who make cars. 

That function has passed. Modern car plants are bigger, brighter and more productive than even Henry Ford could have imagined. They pull parts and materials from a complex supply network and assemble cars with up to 30,000 individual parts.

At least until there is a chip shortage, then their efficiency wanes.

the Ford Piquette Plant building in Detroit
Piquette Avenue Industrial Historic District. (2022, August 9). In Wikipedia

Food production factories

Over half of the 8 billion humans alive are fed by agricultural factories. They do not need to spend time in the fields or the food processing plants; they can buy their food from a market or a store. Purchasing food frees their time to add energy and intellect to the broader economic activity.

All is good and a clever justification for the command and control.

Soil is the factory floor of agriculture. It is where almost all the production happens. Only it is far from the inert shell that keeps the rain and snow from clogging the machines on the car assembly lines.

It is alive.

Soil lives and breathes and can suffer from ill health, stress and overwork.

Soil is the agricultural equivalent of the factory worker replaced by machines. For a time, the replacement is more efficient, works all hours without fatigue and increases production. 

Until there is a chip shortage.

What sustainably FED suggests

Soil is not a factory, tempting as it might be to treat it like one.

If the soil becomes the place where inputs become outputs, and food production becomes totally dependent on inputs, then we had better be sure that the supply of inputs is consistent.

Any shortfall quickly becomes catastrophic.

A better way to view soil is as the workers able to organically renew and restore themselves. Soil that can store organic matter, recycle nutrients and hold on to water can renew itself. Perhaps even sustainably.

Her image from photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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