Department of Crop Sciences University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Agronomy Day 2006

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Martian Production Systems on Earth

Luis F. Rodríguez Luis F. Rodríguez
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural
and Biological Engineering

The business of modern agriculture is complex; significant costs for seeding, irrigation, drainage, herbicides, fertilizers, and other inputs combined with commodity price fluctuations and Mother Nature mean slim margins in the best of times, disaster in the worst of times, and complex interactions always. For example, in a commodity-dominated market, often the impulse is to outproduce the competition in order to increase profits. However, an aggregate increase in production reduces the value of the commodity by increasing supply. Interplay with seasonal weather patterns and input prices also significantly affect profit. As a result, net profits may actually decrease despite a bumper crop. Additionally, new limiting factors are acting upon farming systems making it more difficult to return a profit. For instance, large-scale mechanization has reduced the manpower required to manage modern production systems, allowing individual producers to manage larger tracts of land. The economics of scale have in turn greatly reduced production costs, making it difficult to compete at the smaller scales. At the same time, land values are increasing, encouraging absentee ownership. This concomitantly promotes cash rents as opposed to the customary crop sharing arrangements for tenant managers, eroding trust and community values. To make matters worse, energy prices are expected to continue increasing. It is becoming progressively more challenging to encourage the next generation to adopt the agricultural lifestyle, suggesting that the resulting quality of life is not commensurate with the investment and risk involved. Finally, many have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of modern production operations, but reducing these impacts while addressing the economic and social aspects of farming seems a difficult goal.

figure 1

Artwork courtesy

System constraints are fluctuating. This is nothing new; however, to manage such a system while maintaining its sustainability over the long term, we need to create a fluid and holistic understanding of the state of the system. We have had this opportunity in the study of Martian life support systems including long-term bases. Voyages to Mars including humans are three years long, at minimum; one way travel time is six months. Abort-to-Earth options are not available as in the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station; thus, these systems need to be self-sufficient. In fact, the proposed Martian bases are not unlike what our future production systems might become (see tables) as our terrestrial constraints tighten and new markets develop, particularly in bio-energy and carbon sequestration. Clearly a wide array of interacting forces will determine the success and sustainability or failure of modern production systems. With increasingly tight constraints, we must approach farms of all kinds as holistic production systems to be optimized and managed.

Thus, lessons learned during the analysis of Martian productions systems are being transferred to terrestrial systems. The development of a modeling and simulation infrastructure capable of capturing the complex interactions of modern production systems as they interact with their surrounding environment and communities has been initiated. This infrastructure shall serve as a basis from which to execute a wide array of simulation-based experimentation leading towards innovative management practices, rational practical experimentation, control systems, and ultimately the design of new production systems capable of sustainability over many years.

Similarities between Martian and Earthen Production Systems

Products Mars Earth
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Constraints Mars Earth
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