The agriculture industry in Nevada and across the planet is poised for a revolution that will change the nature of farming forever. Of the many topics discussed at the Nevada Farms Conference held in Fallon at the end of February, few have the potential impacts of autonomous technology on labor intensive agriculture. The robots are already here. More are coming to make the agricultural enterprise economically viable, productive, and environmentally sustainable.
The United Nations estimates that the world population will grow by roughly 2 billion people from 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050. Jacob Holloway is a Nye County Cooperative Extension educator who studies the integration of technology on Nevada farms.
“We need to think about how to increase productivity on our farms. There’s just no question about it,” Holloway said about agriculture in general. “We have to increase farming productivity and crop yields, in a sustainable way. We have to do it all. That’s a lot to deal with, and the only way I see us going forward to feed everybody and to make this work is if we can employ our technology in a sustainable way.”
There is the Chicken Boy, a ceiling mounted robot that tends chickens around the clock. It exercises the birds and changes their bedding when needed and monitors their health by analyzing their feces.
Never weary, the 24-handed autonomous strawberry picker Agrobot demonstrates the utility of real-time artificial intelligence when the robot delicately plucks ripe strawberries from plants by the stem in the field or greenhouse.
“Precision agriculture” is particularly apt when it comes to the autonomous and targeted application of pesticides and herbicides.
“That we were making very precise decisions, this is saving farmers time and money. In another way, it’s also really good for the environment,” Holloway explained. “If we know the exact areas of the field that need, let’s say pesticide applications, then we can limit those pesticide applications. Instead of spraying the whole field, just spray one small part of the field. The farmers like that because they save money, and consumers and everyone else likes it because we’re reducing pesticide use.”
In 2017, the farm equipment manufacturer John Deere purchased the Blue River Corporation for $305 million. Silicon Valley-based Blue River had developed a system they call See and Spray. The rolling robot uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to “detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.” When the robot identifies a weed, it sprays it with a precise application of herbicide. See and Spray reduces chemical use by some 90 percent while increasing yield at the same time.
According to John Deere, the equipment in development is primarily focused on weed control in the giant soy bean farming industry. Being able to afford such technology is a matter of scale. Big farms can buy big, smart implements. Small and medium-sized farms cannot afford most agrobotic technology as it exists today. In the United States, very little farm automation equipment is made for smaller operations.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines a small farm as one that grows and sells less than $250,000 of marketable crops. Roughly 80 percent of all farms and ranches in Nevada are smaller than 500 acres and well below the USDA threshold for small farm status. In California the percentage of small farms is near 90 percent.
The Farm Hand Tractor
David Haynes is a farmer, self-described tinkerer, and founder of the Farm Hand Tractor Company. Based in Utah, Haynes has a philosophical commitment to building autonomous technology small farmers need but cannot afford.
Haynes was in Reno recently and gave a demonstration of the Farm Hand Tractor at the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Nevada Reno. Farmer Dave, as is embroidered on his overalls, held a remote control and directed the squeaky robot into a field on the east side of the Truckee Meadows.
Seven years ago Dave worked as a teacher/farmer at a church-run farm where volunteer labor was scarce. Perhaps the largest single challenge for small farmers is labor. The need to sustainably manage aphids gave rise to the first Farm Hand Tractor.
“We wanted to spray but we didn’t want to use chemicals. To get rid of aphids, you spray soap and water, and they can’t breathe so they die. But bugs do not live on the top of the plant,” Haynes said standing next to a Farm Hand Tractor. “They’re smart, they’re underneath. So in order to spray ‘em, you have to get underneath, and there’s no equipment that sprays from the bottom. It all sprays from the top, overhead. So I built a spray rig that was arched, and it made jets that would spray in every direction and put a high pressure pump on it, and it would fog the whole thing. It worked great, but that was made out of two by fours, and we would push it up and down the rows.”
For small farmers, implements like tractors, even small tractors, are large investments that need to be versatile in function and easy and inexpensive to maintain.
Using tracks from a Bobcat mini front-loader, a gearbox from a Jazzy wheelchair, and several lead-acid 12 volt batteries, the Farm Hand Tractor is tailored for the small to medium-sized operation.
“Almost everything in this tractor is off the shelf,” Haynes said. “No custom work on it, so that anyone, if you bought this and your treads wore out, you don’t have to come back to me to buy new ones, you can go to a Bobcat dealer or Kubota dealer and a couple of others and use the exact same track. That’s what we need to use. We need to be standardized, so they’re not dependent. A lot of farm tractors aren’t that way right now. It’s like they don’t even want you to touch the tractor. It’s like ‘bring it to us if it needs to be worked on.’”
John Deere is an old farm implement maker that now operates an automation laboratory in San Francisco. Over the past few years there have been conflicts with farmers who are locked out of effecting repairs on smart John Deere equipment. Copyright laws prevent farmers from tampering with software guided systems, which is, in effect, the entire tractor.
The Farm Hand Tractor Haynes brought to Reno is his fourth design. His commercial model sells for roughly $10,000. He is currently building a solar powered version. His first commercial sale.
“This industry is really wide open. There are a lot of small to medium farms, and there’s not a lot of stuff for them right now. They’re kind of left hanging.”
Due to factors of scale, small farms are typically less efficient than larger operations, so the need for the enhanced efficiencies of agrobotics is distinct and could factor heavily in the future success of community-based agriculture. Farmer Dave inherited much of his commitment to small agriculture from the writing of Elliot Coleman, author of The Four Season Gardner and other books on small-scale farming practices.
“Unfortunately, the Department of Ag in the country has been for many years, ‘get big or get out.’ This has led to our mono-cropping and what is not sustainable. I’m kind of big into sustainability and being able to actually do this long term. This is more small hands on.
“The idea of running one crop all the time … it’s efficient. It’s fast. It’s cheap. It’s not good for the environment. It’s not good for the soil.
“It actually builds up predators because they know, ‘Ah, celery is getting grown here in the valley.” This is where the celery eaters go. So that is a big thing just to help with that diversity … to be able to let a farmer grow more than one thing, to have a tractor that’s multi-use, not just a single use that does one thing and that’s it.”
In addition to a sprayer to treat aphids, the Farm Hand Tractor has some 20 other functions to include a “prone weeding platform” on which a farmer can lay flat on their stomach, slowly roll along the rows, and pull weeds.
The goal for equipment designers like Haynes is to develop autonomous functions that integrate geographic information systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS). He was in Reno to meet with a GPS expert in an effort to develop a guidance system that would enable a farmer to define the dimensions of the field, and the Farm Hand Tractor would plow the field without further human intervention.
Because Nevada farms are mostly small, Jacob Holloway said the Cooperative Extension will play an important role in the adoption of agrobotics in Nevada. The Extension can help mitigate the risks of experimentation.
“What we need to find out is how this technology is going to be applied, and how it’s going to be adopted. It’s really good for us to be experimenting with this technology first because we can take the hit and make the mistakes and then recommend it to our farmers how to use it. I think for us, at least for me in my profession as an agricultural scientist, there’s a lot of research to be done about the application and adoption of this technology to different crops. I think all crops, all agriculture will touch it.”
In 2019, there were 216 certified hemp growers in Nevada. The were 14,113 acres under outdoor hemp production and 1,372,083 certified square feet of indoor hemp cultivation. Holloway says the state’s burgeoning hemp crop is a perfect example of the need for automation.
“Our hemp crop in Nevada requires hands on the crop to pick those flowers off the plant. It takes some eye coordination and understanding of the agronomics of that crop to know when to pick that flower and how to pick that flower. If you don’t pick it in the right way, you can damage the plant. The cannabis plant is not … it can be easily damaged in the field in many different ways, and one of them is harvesting.”
Happy Cows, Happy Farmers
There are roughly 25,000 dairy cows in Nevada. The state ranks 32nd in milk production with 3 fluid milk plants and 1 powder milk facility. According to the Nevada Dairymen, Nevada cows produce enough fluid milk to meet in-state demand. Nevada dairies are already highly automated. Holloway describes a dairy implement that includes cows trained to interface with an autonomous milking system.
“They’ve done some research on this, and the cows actually prefer to be milked by the robots because the robot is programmed to milk the cow in such a way that it’s happy. It monitors the cow’s behavior and health and all the stats that would make a cow want to produce more milk.
“It provides a nice, clean, comfortable area for the cow to be milked in. The cows don’t even need a person to take them into the milk station. They just do it all on their own. They’re trained.
“This is why I’m saying the farms of the future will be built around the robots because this whole robotic milking facility is built in such a way that the cows themselves go in and milk themselves when it’s time. You don’t even have to bring the cows in. When the cow knows it needs to be milked, it goes in the milk stall. The robot milks it and lets it go, and nobody even had to be there to do that. That’s good for the cow because the cow doesn’t have to wait to be milked. If a cow has to wait, that can actually cause a lot of pain for the animal, so it’s timely. It works. The cows like it. The farmers are happy.”
And yes, a robotic cowboy is on the horizon. The Cargill Corporation has deployed robotic cowboys in beef processing plants across the US and Canada. They are effectively four-wheeled vehicles about half the size of an automobile, complete with flashing lights and long arms that wave plastic bags.
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney is a leading robotics research center and is working on the complicated task of a robot that can manage moving livestock on varied terrain, a free-range autonomous cowboy.
The University of Sydney also supports the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation, a rapidly growing field and one of particular interest to Nevada.
“Yes robotic cowboys,” Holloway said with a smile. “There are already applications for this being developed, robots being developed to round up the cattle and take them where they need to go. The goal is to actually have a robot that can do the rotational grazing and move the whole herd into the new paddock, so that the farmers don’t even have to go out and round up the cattle. The cows know to follow the robot, and the robot will lead them to fresh grass and hay. They’re trained for it.”
There are ethical questions raised when considering the implementation of autonomous farm implements. Robots take jobs. Drone systems are now used to assess crops in the field, so farmers can precisely target treatments and harvesting. Holloway said the drone has in many places replaced the field scout, a staple introductory farming job.
“There’s a company called American Robotics. They just developed a completely autonomous drone for farm applications, and it basically replaces a field scout. Back home, a lot of kids when they’re in high school or in early days in college and ag school, they go out and work for the farmers and scout the fields, and it’s a really great way to learn basic agronomic principles when you’re out there learning what to look for. But basically our new agronomist, the new wave of agronomists are going to have to learn how to run robots and drones, and that’s going to be a big difference.”
Automation has the potential to reduce toil and forever change the nature of farm labor, a notoriously difficult and dangerous job.
“For the farm laborers who continue to work on the farm, they will be slightly higher skilled and they will learn to work and interface with robots,” said Holloway. “The harder tasks that really beat up the body that really wear farm labor down because farm labor is so hard to keep because it wears people down, and they don’t want to be a farm laborer.”
And what about the farmers of the future?
“Farmers in the future, they will be computer scientists. They will be technologists and engineers. Already farmers have to build so many things on their farm. So the farmers of the future will be, and they already are, but they will have a very serious science and technology background. I think that the farmers, their fathers and grandfathers will look back, look at them and say ‘wow, this has really come a long ways.’”
When Dave Haynes took first prize in a farm technology competition sponsored by California Family Farms, he garnered the affirmation needed to move forward with his business plan. Haynes recently quit his job and is giving himself as long as his savings will hold out to build the Farm Hand Tractor Company.
“I actually quit my job three months ago. And I’ve been doing this full time since I won the contest. It’s like, we actually had about 18 months savings put away, so I have 18 months before I either have to get a job or do something to make money. That’s my goal next year is to sell 100 of them. And then probably 200 a year after that.”