AgTech in the Field Offering Real ROI

During the “SmartFarm: AgTech in the Field” ed session at the recent Organic Grower Summit, moderator Bart Walker of Pacific Ag Rentals told the audience that he wanted to send them home with “actionable items” that could be immediately implemented on the farm.

And the panel delivered as the three presenters agreed that technology offers great promise for the future, and growers are looking for solutions to today’s problems.

Sebastien Boyer of FarmWise, which offers a weeding service utilizing an autonomous robotic machine, said he and his business partner Thomas Palomares began their company with the understanding that while accumulation of data is a powerful thing, they needed to offer a real-time product that growers could use.

FarmWise currently has 12 autonomous weeders that can each weed a 5–10-acre block per day. The company contracts with growers on a per-acre basis to provide this service, having determined early on that FarmWise would be a service provider rather than a seller of equipment. During the first three years of its existence, the company concentrated on lettuce, creating a database of millions of photos so that the machine could move through a field wiping out the weeds without harming the crop. Over the past 12 months, it has created a database for five more crops (including broccoli, celery, and cauliflower) and is now able to reduce the time to build a crop data set to just a couple of months, according to the company founder.

Boyer noted that for FarmWise's services to make economic sense, a grower should have at least one 5-10-acre block that needs to be weeded once a week or once every other week.

As FarmWise's machines have moved through various growers' fields, they have accumulated a great deal of data, which Boyer’s team is planning to supply to farmers in useful ways.

Also on the panel was Gabe Sibley of Verdant Robotics, which offers ground-based robotics that use digital imagery and computing power to assist growers. Verdant proved its concept in an apple orchard and is now moving on to other crops.

Sibley explained that his company's machine, with its robotic arms, spent countless hours photographing every element of an apple from bud to harvest. The CEO of Verdant likened the data set to having an agronomist monitoring a specific apple 24 hours a day throughout its entire growing cycle.

One apple grower told Sibley that if an agronomist was observing the tree all the time, he could perform all cultural tasks at precisely the right moment and grow a perfect crop—one that featured all 88-size fruit for example.

Like FarmWise, Verdant also utilizes a service model that Sibley said begins by taking a collaborative approach with the grower. “The value is in the discovery process when we find new ways the technology can be used,” he said.

Thinning, weeding, and mowing are valuable labor-saving actions that provide immediate ROI on the cost side, but Sibley believes the real value is in using the technology and the data to create “new money under the sun"—such as larger fruit.

Josh Roberts, president and general manager of Triangle Farms, a growing operation owned by JV Smith Companies that farms 10,000 acres in the Salinas Valley, said his company is employing automation for weeding, thinning, and other labor replacement practices. He said a lack of labor is driving the adoption of technology, adding that the company is “leaning into technology” every chance it gets.

“If you are not paying attention to technology, you are going to be left behind,” Roberts said.  “We use a lot of technology, always looking at new ways to solve problems."

There are hidden costs, Roberts said, and you must make sure you see the whole picture. For example, the FarmWise autonomous weeder does not work with drip tape on top of the bed. “We’ve had to bury our drip tape,” he said.

Specifically talking about organic vegetable production, Roberts said that style of farming, which often utilizes transplants, tends to lend itself to technology such as the automated weeder as there is already great distinction between a weed and plant from day one. He also noted that at Triangle Farms almost all its irrigating of organic crops is done with overhead sprinklers, which is compatible with ground-level automation. 

Roberts expects the use of technology to explode in specialty crop agriculture as more technology companies have entered the space and are working on technologically advanced versions of products that have been available to field crop growers for many years.