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As useful as a lead balloon

Published on 14 July 2016

I’ve started this editorial four times. The problem is: I keep changing positions. Are farm simulations useful or detrimental?

Farming simulations have now made it to the grocery store aisle in Berlin, Germany. Newsweek (German supermarket turns aisle into mini farm) reported installation of a mini-farm hydroponic greenhouse located on the grocery aisle whereby shoppers can harvest their own crop of specialty herbs and vegetables, like mizuna (translation “water greens” or Japanese mustard) and wasabi mustard greens.

The chairman of the executive board at Metro (the grocery company), Olaf Koch, is quoted as saying, “We feel that if we aim to be champions for independent business, then we need to do that on a sustainable basis. There’s more and more recognition that the way produce is being offered and plants are grown is sometimes difficult due to lots of water consumption, lots of chemicals on them and the products traveling.”

I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to say. I’m astounded, however, that he would use this modeling approach to either promote “sustainable independent business” or more natural (an ambiguous term at best) products.

If he’s trying to model sustainable farming, then it’s laughable. If he’s trying to model more “naturally grown” products, then he shouldn’t be using “sustainable” in the same sentence as it relates to in-grocery greenhouses for the masses.

The article further states Metro’s new approach is to “shape the future of retail.” Really? Do they have any idea how big that store has to be to provide a family with one week’s worth of produce, let alone many thousands of customers? He’s only talking about mustards at present. How much mustard does the average shopper buy, for crying out loud?

Multiply that by the number of products a customer places in the cart in an average trip, and then multiply that by the square footage needed for a greenhouse big enough for one shopper to harvest – even if grown in stacked hydroponic shelves. And do you really think a shopper wants to roam a greenhouse and spend hours harvesting a single dinner? There’s a reason not everyone is a farmer.

From that standpoint, I think this simulation is a really dumb idea, about as useful as a lead balloon. It may dangerously give the consumer, who is already agrarian under-educated, the impression that he knows what it’s like to farm.

What he doesn’t get is the 3 a.m. heifer calving, the preg checking in a snowstorm, the midnight hay baling when the dew rolls in, an aphid infestation or the blazing 100ºF day changing the knives on a mower. Simulate that, Mr. Grocer – model that. But you can’t, can you? If you do, you’ll lose your customers. Reality bites.

However, if the aim is to make produce as “fresh and local as possible,” then I’d have to give him that point. It doesn’t get any fresher or any more local. And while his experiment can’t cover every aspect of farming, it does cover another educational point: Food doesn’t come from a box. Not everybody knows that.

No simulation is perfect, but we’re smart people living in an enlightened age – why can’t we figure out a better system or at least better simulations? I notice there are a few folks working on it.

National Geographic and Bayer CropScience announced the release of “Top Crop: Farming for the Future”, an interactive online game to increase national agricultural literacy through education on the basics of crop production.

Players experience pests, disease and weather and learn about modern technologies to overcome the challenges. It’s at least an improvement. (I tried it. I earned a “power planter” through the accumulation of tech points. Score! And I even called it “editorial research,” but that’s between you and me.)

Thus, after four editorial attempts, I have come to only one conclusion: It’s what happens after the simulation that defines the activity. If it opens doors to learning, that’s a worthy pursuit. If it grossly misrepresents, it’s doing more harm than good. That’s my story (for now), and I’m stickin’ to it (maybe).  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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