Reduce Labor Costs: Automate Your Farm Today

By Sierra Clark

Labor is expensive. Anywhere from 26% to 40% of total production cost is dedicated to labor in indoor farming, according to Dr. Kozai and NewBean Capital. This cost often includes paying for a combination of highly skilled work (plant science) and traditional manual labor (picking, pruning, packaging, etc). By introducing automation and robotics, farmers have the opportunity to cut costs and improve efficiency. Automation also provides the opportunity to allocate time differently, spending less time on repetitive tasks and more time on improving the industry. 

Current World Scene: Automation is At Work

Many countries have already implemented automation for agriculture. Researchers, technologists, and farmers around the world have been developing and implementing automation. They serve to demonstrate that this technology will fundamentally change the way we eat. 

In the US, Iron Ox, based in SF, is developing a fully automated urban greenhouse. The farm will be run by artificial intelligence and a team of three robots (header image), and will automate the entire farming process from planting to harvesting. Its one acre floor plan is expected to produce the equivalent of 30 acres of production. Also in SF, vertical farming startup Plenty, is noted for its use of automated AI operations. They recently completed a 200 million Series B round and their farms reportedly produce 350 times as much produce, and 1 percent of the water, compared to traditional agriculture.

In Asia, the Japanese company Spread is receiving attention for its fully automated plant factory, called the Technofarm, which is reported to begin operation in early 2018. Spread’s Technofarm will be 1.2 acres (4,800 m2) near Kyoto, and is expected to reduce human labor by 50%. They developed their own cultivation environmental control technology that conserves resources and lowers production cost, while increasing production from 30,000 to 51,000 lettuce heads which they will supply to 2,000 supermarkets throughout Japan. Spread will be attending the AgLanta Conference in March.

In the rest of the world, Intelligent Growth Solutions has developed a commercial scale fully automated vertical farm in West Sussex, United Kingdom. They will offer leafy greens, with a focus on minimizing cost. In Australia, researchers at the University of Sydney have made major headway on harvesting and other robotic farming technology.

Types of Technology: How to Implement Right Now

According to Agrilyst reporting, the technology farmers are most excited about is automation. For those willing to invest in the technology, there are many commercially available ways to implement automation. Of the countless products on the market, below are a handful of popular and noteworthy automation companies organized by process category.

Process management automation includes systems that control and monitor everything from irrigation to total environmental control. Autogrow, provides intelligent automation systems including pH sensors, irrigation, and climate control products. Priva, provides software, hardware, and services for the development and production of process management. Alongside Common Garden, all three companies will be present at Agritecture’s upcoming AgLanta Conference.

Nursing operation automation addresses seed propagation, grafting, spacing, and automation. Some options are low cost, such as commercial seeding machines, which can break even at 40 hours per week. Companies include Berry Seeder (seeding), Conic Systems (grafting), Harvest Automation (spacing), and Visser NA (propagation).

Plant management automation includes products that address weeding and planting. Naio Technologies, and PlantTape are leading the way here. More technology for pruning, trimming, and thinning is needed.

Harvesting automation includes both old and new technology. Traditional row crops have been automatically harvest for years, while more delicate crops, such as berries, require more advanced technology. Among many reasons, harvest automation is difficult to create because crops can vary in size, height, and ripeness. Companies such as Abundant Robotics, Agrobot, and Harvest Croo are tackling this challenge. For this category in particular, technological advancement is needed.

For post harvesting, companies such as Aweta, Cherry Creek Systems, and Greefa provide products that sort, grade, and pack produce.

Prediction for the Future: The Space Will Grow

There are many barriers that may prevent the growth of the automation industry. Agriculture has always been a conservative industry, which suggests that slow adoption rates of new technology will continue. In fact, according to AgFunder reporting there has been a 13% decrease in funding of robotics and mechanization since 2014. There is concern that the market size is not yet large enough to draw attention, research, and funding needed to support the industry. While there are many options currently available and in use, such as irrigation and climate control, other areas such as robotics are underdeveloped categories requiring greater attention. 

However, the automation industry is expected to grow larger in coming years. The strongest indicator of this is the acquisition of Blue River Technology for 305 million by John Deere. Blue River is a computer vision and artificial intelligence company that provides “see and spray” weed control technology for traditional agriculture. It is expected that this acquisition will bring greater focus and funding to the space.

Ultimately, most farms will become automated. As technology improves and is cheaper to acquire, automation will become an obvious choice for most farmers. The trend for local food demand continues to grow, as does the need for ways to save resources. And with such tight margins, cutting costs is an important way to move the industry forward. This is why automation will continue to grow as an industry and is here to stay. Automation is one of many important ways that the technology will help to satisfy the world’s hunger.