From 'green energy to green pastures'—how clean tech is saving family farms from financial ruin

  • Family farms have seen revenues drop 45 percent in recent years.
  • New clean technologies have the potential to cut costs, make these small businesses more sustainable, and keep younger generations on the land.
Hans L Bonnevier | Getty Images

As a proponent of clean technologies, I have been visiting solar panel plants and wind turbine installments for much of my career. Recently, however, I'm spending more time knee-deep in mud talking to farmers - specifically, North American small family farmers that are facing their worst financial crisis in 30 years.

These conversations have reinforced my belief that clean technology might just be the thing to help save those farms. Now, I understand that the line from green energy to green pastures isn't an obvious one. But ideas like reducing resource use, reusing and recycling and automating that have taken root in the clean technology sector are now finding their way into the fields. Especially as farmers look for new ways to cut costs and make their businesses more sustainable.

In the past, when I went to farming conferences, all the displays would be for enormous tractors or combine harvesters. Now, they've been joined by a new breed of companies selling smart, connected products that harness big data and massive computing power to reduce inputs and costs. In short, connectivity for crops.

North American farmers are currently caught in an economic pincer movement. Since an all-time high in 2013, they've seen their revenues drop 45 per cent. At the same time, they're struggling to recruit migrant workers, especially those from Mexico, where factory work is an increasingly attractive option compared to back-breaking labor in fields.

"Technologies that improve the balance sheet and bring some work-life balance open the way to making farming a viable and attractive career choice again."

Small family farms are particularly at risk. For context, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States alone are family-owned operations – defined by the USDA as any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator through blood, marriage or adoption."

Already more than half of them are in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "red zone" for profitability, meaning it won't take much to tip them into outright losses. The younger generations are leaving in droves, meaning that when existing farmers retire there's nobody to take over the family business. Some farms will be sold to larger competitors, others will simply shut down.

Tech is often seen as the enemy of traditional small business, with the likes of Amazon decimating high streets and Uber out-competing local taxis. But many of the entrepreneurs I work with come from rural communities and are deeply concerned about the knock-on effects that the loss of small farms will have on local retail and service businesses.

When I hear these entrepreneurs make their sales pitches, they talk about cost savings and resource-use efficiencies but what many of them are really selling is convenience. Farming has always been a 365-days-a-year business, with an endless cycle of trekking out to check on the weather, animal welfare and crops.

Now, as companies create systems that can provide that data on smartphones – right down to the level of the health of individual animals in some cases – the era of remote control farming is dawning.

To me, that's a great hope for stemming the flow of younger people away from family farms. Technologies that improve the balance sheet and bring some work-life balance open the way to making farming a viable and attractive career choice again. In some cases, they will allow small farmers to maintain a side-hustle, either another business or a job – and that could be the difference between making ends meet or not.

It's also important to remember that farmers are resilient and have been innovators since the beginning. One next-generation farmer I work with got so fed up with the time-consuming process of phoning around to potential buyers for his grain that he set up an online marketplace called FarmLead. He's recently opened an office in Chicago to expand in the U.S. northwest.

I admit that these technologies are significant investments and there's no escaping the fact that they will lead to some job losses. But we should look hard at reforming the $19-billion a year subsidy system – the bulk of which is currently swallowed up by larger producers – to better support small farmers making the switch.

If we can ease small farms over the financial bump of adopting new technologies, it would help put these vital parts of the rural economy back on a sustainable footing. I'd bet the farm on it.

Commentary by Jane Kearns, a senior adviser at Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District. Kearns is also the co-founder of the CanadaCleantech Alliance and a board director at the Water Technology Acceleration Project (WaterTAP).

Disclosure: FarmLead is part of the MaRS network, a non-profit enterprise funded by the government of Canada to fuel innovation. Kearns serves as a pro bono advisor FarmLead on clean technology matters.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.