Rise of robots a boost to small, diverse farms

Marilee Foster is not the kind of farmer who makes rash decisions. But when she heard about Rowbot, a lawn-mower-sized autonomous machine that can fertilize, mulch weeds and sow crops on 50 acres a day, she asked, “How much does it cost? And where can I get it?”

Foster, a small vegetable grower whose family has been working the same piece of land on Long Island, N.Y., for nearly four centuries, isn’t particularly tech savvy. She still hand-draws her exquisite farmstand signs, and avoids social media. But, struggling to find willing and well-trained staff for nearly every job on the farm, she clearly was interested in  Rowbot. “I would consider it a helper,” she says.

For decades, farm machinery has targeted industrial-sized farmers, underpinning the “get big or get out” ag model of consolidation. Now, the miniaturization of farm machinery may be the ag-tech counter-trend that actually encourages smaller, more diverse farms.

“When we think about the future in 10 years, we’re going to see smaller machines rather than big ones,” said Rowbot’s founder Kent Cavender-Bares in a recent conversation on the This Week in Startups podcast.

The 64-row corn planters that crawl across the Heartland today are so large and expensive that they only make sense for the most gargantuan, debt-worthy farmers. They’re so heavy they compact the soil. “Let’s say we just wanted to mix corn and soybeans on the same field. Today you can’t do that easily at scale,” Cavender-Bares says.

In contrast, Rowbot is small enough to get between the rows of corn, dropping fertilizer in micro-doses when the crop needs it. Much less fertilizer gets wasted, lowering costs and reducing runoff into streams and water supplies.

By making it easier to take care of a diverse landscape, machinery like the Rowbot actually allows the landscape to be resettled with a different type of farm.

This isn’t just an outlier opinion. In a recent article from Bayer Crop Science, inventor and engineer David Dorhout asks, “Why not take the large machines of today and break them into thousands of smaller machines?,” like the six-legged autonomous micro-planter he built that is smaller than a basketball. The article suggests that robots eventually will provide most, if not all, of the “semi-skilled labor” on farms — a boon where farm labor is in short-supply but a potential point of conflict if laborers lose jobs.

Agribotix, a drone-maker and drone analytics platform based in Boulder, CO, offers another example of this ag-tech wave for smaller farms. COO Paul Hoff said the plummeting cost of drone components — like the near-infrared and thermal sensors drones use to “see” how plants are doing, as well as easy access to software used to analyse drone data — has meant that the majority of their customers are small farms. Agribotix is used in 35 countries, from Poland and Egypt to the United States, on at least 42 different crops.

Hoff suggested that the benefits are greatest on complicated, diverse farms, not vast monocultures. Where labor is short, a surveying flight by a drone can help optimize when a vineyard decides to harvest its grapes, or a vegetable grower decides to check her eggplant for potato beetles.

This small-machine movement is especially relevant in poorer nations, where the vast majority of the farms remain relatively small. Farm labor is not always available in these countries, as people flock to cities in increasing numbers. So farmers need other solutions for weed control, harvesting and other labor intensive tasks.

Which brings us to HelloTractor. Calling itself the Uber of Farm Machinery, this startup, based in Washington, D.C., and Nairobi, Kenya, allows farmers to rent or lease farm machinery, just as you might “hail” a car with Uber. HelloTractor’s delivery system is tied to its own small, smart tractors, which monitor usage and location for the security of the owner. Users can help offset the cost of the machinery by renting it out. And because labor shortages on farms can lead to poor harvests and lost income, the wider availability of these size-appropriate machines can help communities grow.

Rent to Own Zambia takes this idea one step further, allowing small-scale entrepreneurs in rural Zambia to “rent one water pump, one refrigerator and one hammermill at a time.” The platform isn’t just for farm implements, but the concept remains the same: targeted use of machinery to help humans boost production and income. According to an investor in Rent to Own, the company is just beginning to spread, because there is demand across Africa.

Big machines may have allowed a single person to farm miles of land. But they also created farms that lack diversity. Small machines could not only help large farms become more diverse and ecologically sound, they can be a huge help to small farms that suffer from a lack of machine solutions and labor.

In his classic description of rural decline, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry recounted the process by which a declining number of very large farmers manage most of the American farmscape. A re-settling is the only antidote. And the rise of small farm machines might actually encourage it.

Brian Halweil is the editor-in-chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn and a frequent writer on ag-tech issues. He is part of the team behind Food Loves Tech, an expo on the technology transforming our food chain this June in New York City.