an exercise in observing.

Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ tag

Agri-Tech Catalog: grain elevator

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The hybrid building-machine that inspired a generation of designers...

Like the tractor, one of the most influential agricultural inventions is the ‘modern’ grain-elevator. Despite varying in physical form/construction these structures would generally all house the mechanisms to receive, weigh, grade, separate, store, clean, and redistribute bio-material. The consolidation of these various functions in one efficient place forever changed farms and agriculture by re-wiring the method in which bio-material was moved. Any construction or technical changes that would  increase efficiency or scale immediately affected the surrounding farming enterprises in an elevator’s catchment area.

Before, the technology of elevators allowed them to serve a greater catchment area (and thus contributed to larger consolidated farms) these ‘sentinels’ defined an era in agriculture and agrarian settlement, most notably in the towns where many elevators were erected.

Famous Elevator Row (Inglis, Manitoba Canada) -, these 25,000 bushel elevators lined early agrarian towns

Originally the location of these structures was based on a delicate balance between a large enough volume of bio-material to warrant a rail line and a given distance a farmer could travel, today’s elevators can reach mega sizes that best fit larger farm operations.

One of the 'World's Largest' grain elevators - Hutchinson, Kansas USA

On a design level, these hybrid-machine-buildings once dubbed ‘Prairie Sentinels’ were also very influential, inspiring an entire generation of designers interested in exploring a functional/engineering aesthetic.

In our current ‘age of crisis’ (for example crisis in agriculture, food security, and ecology) one might wonder what the new ‘elevator’/silo would do, how it would work, and subsequently what impacts that would have on design professions. Might the new elevator trigger a new ‘modernism’?

Some excellent resources on grain elevators can be found on a variety of Canadian Heritage Websites:

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

Verlo (photos)

National Film Board (video)

Written by Matthew

February 22nd, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Biotech: A Casual Primer

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So what is biotechnology?

Starting with the basics, the literal translation of the word is the combination of Biology (study of living organisms) + Technology (tools and techniques used to produce things). So essentially “biotech” could cover a rather large range of possibilities and under this general definition clearly include a number of inventions from the past, that we might not normally recognize as products of biotechnology.

Biotech? You bet...but of the pre-modern kind.

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Written by Luca

October 26th, 2010 at 12:55 am

An Apple Picking Adventure in Toronto’s Greenbelt

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French Pastoral Poster - Cataloging Apple Types and Lineage

Thanksgiving weekend (the Canadian edition) for my family is of course always about turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the like, but it also means our annual outing to an apple orchard. This is when we would stock up on as many bags of apples as we could carry out of the orchard to be stored in our “cantina” (or cold-room) for the Fall and Winter.

This year was no exception except for the fact that it was Fei’s first time! We grabbed our dogs and our neighbors and packed into a couple cars and headed out West.

View Apple Picking 2010 in a larger map

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Written by Matthew

October 13th, 2010 at 1:54 am

Agri-Tech Catalog: automatic milking system

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Technology providing both dairy-farmer and cow flexibility and opportunity in milking cycles.

One of my favorite agricultural technologies is the Automated Milking System (AMS); initially developed by Dutch dairy-farmers seeking ways to grant both themselves and their cows with the flexibility to work on their own schedules (as opposed to traditional farming which keeps animals confined and on a tight production schedule, taxing for both farmers and cows alike), the technology has now entered a phase of globally competitive development.

The technology is referred to as a system because it actually changes the logistics and organization of a dairy parlor.

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Written by Matthew

September 22nd, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Midwest-Agri Tour: Kansas

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The time spent in Kansas while on our Midwest-Agri Tour gave Fei and I a wide array of competing opinions on the current state of American Agriculture and visions for the future. It was also a very intense agriculture landscape, mostly producing wheat and cattle, and being set fire to quite regularly.

View Midwest-Agri Tour: Kansas in a larger map

Upon returning to our notes we realized that each of the meetings could correspond to a ‘line’ of values in one of the contemporary systems proposed to accurately account for an expanded spectrum of values; the Triple Bottom Line (TBL/3BL) – people, planet, profit.

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Written by Matthew

September 20th, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Midwest-Agri Tour#3: Sociology and Agriculture KSU

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The following post is a summary of a meeting Fei and I had with Professor Dr. Gerad Middendorf of Kansas State University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. Oddly enough Dr. Middendorf’s office is in the same building as the College of Agriculture, coincidence?

We were encouraged to contact Dr. Middendorf by other departments at KSU (namely the Department of Human Nutrition and Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences) because of some potentially overlapping interests with our own. Dr. Middendorf’s work has been focused on rural and environmental studies along with the sociology of agriculture and food; as such we thought it to be productive to get both information and an opinion from a sociological perspective on American Agriculture.

After describing himself, some published work in “The Fight Over Food”, and his most recent interests in looking at the repopulation of the Great Plains (Latino/minority-based meat packing cities), Dr. Middendorf gave us his opinion on the current state of American Agriculture.
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Written by Matthew

September 19th, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Midwest-Agri Tour Stop#2: Kansas State University College of Agriculture

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The following post is a summary of a meeting Fei and I had with Associate Dean Don Boggs of
Kansas State University’s College of Agriculture, in Manahattan, Kansas.

Rule By Obeying Nature's Laws - Kansas State University Seal


Right from the start Fei and I knew this would be a very different encounter from what we had experienced at The Land Institute. The difference between the alternative thinking research facility to a government and industry sponsored Land Grant University was most notably felt on the level of defining what food is.

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Written by Matthew

September 18th, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Midwest-Agri Tour Stop #1: The Kansas Land Institute

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The following post is a summary of a meeting/tour Fei and I had with Ken Warren (video with Warren) and Wes Jackson of The Land Institute.

2009 Prairie Festival-Land Institute - courtesy

The conversation opened with a discussion on a concept currently at the forefront of our seperate professions: “Sustainability”. Sustainability has become one of the most dangerous concepts in agriculture, according to Warren. Because sustainability can carry multiple interpretations it can be used as a defense for farmers when they announce a particular practice employed on their land, regardless of their ‘version’ of sustainability. Confusion of both terminology and agenda in a term like sustainability within a system interested in maximizing profit is expected to be taken advantage of. Upon much consideration of the term ‘sustainability’ Warren found one of the most interesting anaologies to illustrate the concept as used in agriculture; ‘continously providing CPR to a dying patient’.

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Written by Matthew

September 18th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Salmonella Outbreak: A(nother) perfect case for rethinking scale

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The recent outbreak of Salmonella in eggs across the US has prompted a blaze of news articles, blogs entries, and tweets added to a continuously growing (recent cases of tainted food products included the Mad Cow Disease and Salmonella in spinach) outcry of confusion and mistrust around American food.  Why are these events still happening?!

A recent article on the issue from the New York Times “Growing Concern About Tainted Eggs After Recall” raised some very interesting points about farms and scale; one of the most obvious is that the larger your food supplier is the chance of a problem affecting a wider scale of consumers is greater.  The recent recall of an additional 170 million eggs from 14 states has now totaled over half a billion eggs nation-wide. Basically, that means that there is approximately enough eggs being recalled (wasted) that could have fed the entire nation’s protein needs for 2-days! (1-egg = 1 out of 2-protein servings recommended in a day, source: USDA serving recommendations).

I am sure the economies of scale for an ‘operation’ like Hillandale Farms have developed it into one of America’s largest egg producers, but the risks in managing and dealing with such large problems should be enough (as if the Mad-Cow’s and Sick Spinach was not enough) to say that there are very clear LOGISTIC limits on how large certain things can get.  So, the question is now…what do we do? One of the growing possible solutions is ‘screw’ the large scale farmers, we only want to eat foods from people we know and can see, or that we can grow ourselves.  We’ve heard about urban agriculture and small scale farming, there are even recent competitions to develop self maintained chicken coops (managed completely by an individual who can sell to market)…and it is probably a move in the right direction for securing one’s own personal food security (to a degree) but is that the only answer? The urban agriculture scene has become quite rampant in the design and architectural scene, such as redesigning your neighborhood farmer’s market or designing small organic boutique wineries or the ubiquitous vertical-farm…but this still leaves behind a MAJOR issue (or design opportunity) for our prescribed nutrition needs 1. how can we fill our other food-pyramid needs (such as Grains, Dairy, and Protein) which usually take up larger land-areas to produce them efficiently – which has become the area of nutrition most recently afflicted by health-safety issues.

One of the ways I have been recently looking into this comes from a group of people likened by both alternative agriculture thinkers such as the Land Institute in Salina KS, as well as by agricultural educators who keep a keen eye on larger systems such as at the Center for Great Plains Studies…which is to consider and Agriculture of the Middle.  This idea has been rekindled by a group under the same name (Agriculture of the Middle) who are currently conducting a series of investigations trying to find benefits and validity to medium sized farming operations (on MANY different levels such as economics, ecology, food-safety, and regional food-security).  They have a keen interest in developing reports that will hopefully sway policies to encourage and foster small scale farmers to ‘scale-up’ and contribute to a regional food-web.

I think there could be some real room for thinking about how design (whether urban/rural/architecture) can play a role in encouraging such action by synthesizing more components to such a movement for the middle…how by blending either a few forms of productivity, access, symbiotic-businesses, recreation, or experience a really interesting economic model as well as an interesting urban pattern might arise.

It is time to get brutally entrepreneurial in order to start getting these ideas off the ground.  The National Threat Advisory should be at RED, you could wake up in the middle of the night with a sever case of diarrhea (we are being threatened by our own systems)…

Written by Matthew

August 21st, 2010 at 7:28 am

Agri-Tech Calatog: tractor II

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Let's imagine a new array of 'implements' produced by artists and ecologists able to transform the tractor into experience machines.

The tractor’s conquest of America Part II. Along our recent tour of the United States, I was amazed at the degree of tractor use! Basically, the only other major piece of equipment I have seen throughout the agricultural landscapes has been the Self-Propelled Sprayer.  Of course the fleet of vehicle types one would find across agricultural landscapes depends entirely on the season and crop type, but despite our shift from region to region (starting on the West Coast and now in the Midwest) the presence of the tractor is everywhere, for it seems like any task.  The PTO (Power Take Off) is a huge reason for the tractors conquest across America, a system in the power-train of a tractor that allows additions ‘implements’ to a tractor to receive power from the engine.

One of the most interesting points about the PTO is that it has been universally standardized by the ISO, meaning that regardless of your tractor type the PTO is going to be universally designed to adapt to any third party plug-in ‘implement’.  This could be quite an opportunity for two scenarios of rethinking our current agricultural practice:

1. We can design different power-trains or ‘tractor’ like machines that can deliver power sources to a field, perhaps smaller such as in medium-sized agricultural landscape projects (closer to cities).

2. We can design an incredibly diverse range of ‘implements’ that can be used by the huge existing armada of tractors across not just American but worldwide agricultural projects.  Let’s think about designing an implement that can restore landscapes, or as it may need to irrigate/mist crops produce rainbows.  If we are going to have tractors lets give them some new capabilities knowing that a whole fleet of them and farmers world wide can tap into a common implement.  Instead of tractor pulls there could be implement tournaments with a display of wild and productive effects!

Rainbow produced over the UN building in New York (Rainbow Maker's World)

Written by Matthew

August 17th, 2010 at 5:00 am