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COLUMNISTS

When other words fail

Justin Isherwood
Author Justin Isherwood can only utter an awestruck exclamation after witnessing the advances of ridding weeds via old-fashioned hoes to high tech robots.

Methodists did not use the term 'Holy Jesus!' very often. Methodists have not equipped themselves with a sanctified category of human beings; no saints, no St. Agnes, no St. Patrick, no short-cuts to heaven. 

A Methodist could get caught in an industrial grade meat grinder for the sake of God and still end up just plain sausage. It really wasn’t fair of Methodists: No super holies, no hyper-holies, no fab-holies.

It was, however, for Methodists to note that in that long list of holies there is no mention of the guy who invented the toothbrush, the flashlight, the tin can, or the sacred mother who invented gravy or chicken soup and fresh bread. nor beer or buttered toast, much less the toaster. An oversight, if you probably had to be Methodist to know something was missing in the sanctuary.

By consequence I don’t use the term Holy Jesus! very often because it’s not part of my vocabulary. I have no Holy Jesus gene. Except occasionally something happens when I do say Holy Jesus!, like when a certain woman said she’d marry me.

I said Holy Jesus! in a John Deere combine one afternoon when I saw a meteor streak across the sky, and followed its fiery path across the upper atmosphere, a grazer, in broad daylight. Holy Jesus!

I think I said Holy Jesus! the first time I saw the repaired optic photos of the Hubble space telescope. And I probably said it as I watched my kids being born.

I do sorta reserve the phrase, being Methodist, for events of significant importance, or abject surprise, or plain dumb luck. Still, not often, because I don’t have the theological license to do so.

FarmWise says its robots can cleanly pick weeds from fields - without harming the crop, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

Recently three AI (artificial intelligence) researchers developed a camera activated robotic weeder for California’s vegetable fields. To this point there is no mention of cost.  The machine is called the FarmWise, it looks like a Coke machine on wheels programmed to tell the difference between cauliflower and redroot and probably a lot faster than a human being. 

A robotic arm swoops down, tills out the offending weed as this 2-row “thing” creeps along at 3-4 mph. No potty break, no lunch break, if breakdowns still count.

FarmWise is part of a growing trend of automatic weeders such as Netherland’s Steketere IC, the UK’s Robocrop, the Robovator from Denmark and the Remoweed by no less than Ferrari from Italy. The Hortibot from Denmark is autonomous and does potatoes.

To all the minions of agriculture will say “Oh great! Another half-million dollar machine.”  Nevertheless the fact is we are steadily losing the resistance war with weeds. Among the more celebrated is palmer amaranth resistance in cotton that is reportedly being hand-pulled at $600 an acre, thanks to a known labor pool shortage willing to pull weeds.

There simply are not enough dumb farm kids anymore. And then, there's rumors of a Wall. 

The future is already cast; and it is a combination of articulate arms, cameras, some software with an algorithm to stun a nuclear physicist, that the robotic weeder is on its way.

A Detroit automaker is currently building the FarmWise machine for deployment this spring in California.  Again, no mention of cost. To acknowledge there are bits of agriculture that don’t have a list price, weeds is probably one.

Here is the Holy Jesus! machine. In one fell-swoop much of agriculture’s field chemistry can be put aside if at a price, and there is always a price. If it makes weeds go away, price probably doesn’t count. To know the farm shop will soon have to upgrade its diagnostics, a new bin of replacement parts, shed space for a couple robots.

I have applied for the license to say Holy Jesus!, authorized to all who knew weeds as once attached to a hoe, attached to a handle, attached to a kid.

How all this effects that sense of a world called the family farm is yet to be deciphered.  If only to know, Holy Jesus, the rules just changed again.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.