“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.”

Excerpted from Brian Halweil:

“When we think about the future in ten years, we’re going to see smaller machines rather than big ones,” said Rowbot’s founder Kent Cavender-Bares in a recent conversation of 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, and debt-worthy, farmers. They’re so heavy they compact the soil. And they don’t work if you decide to plant a rye, sorghum or anything besides corn. In contrast, Rowbot is small enough to get between the rows of corn, dropping fertilizer in microdoses, when the crop needs it. Much less fertilizer gets wasted and runs off the field to contaminate the water supply. These are things a big tractor simply cannot do. “Let’s say we just wanted to mix corn and soybeans on the same field. Today you can’t do that easily at scale.”

By making it easier to take care of a diverse landscape, the Rowbot actually allows the landscape to be resettled with a different type of farm. Small machines can get to spots on a field that farmers sitting in the cabs of big vehicles have struggled to tend well — ecological niches like the understory of a bean plant, in between two rows of corn, between layers of grape leaves.

When I recently spoke to Paul Hoff, COO of Agribotix, a drone-maker and drone analytics platform based in Boulder, CO, he confirmed that the majority of their customers are smaller farms. Hoff said the plummeting costs 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, are the big reasons for wide use among smaller farms, whether in Poland, China or Egypt. Agribotix is used in 35 countries, on at least 42 different crops. In fact, Hoff suggested 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.

The downsizing isn’t just about the hardware, but also the business model and outlay for the farmer. Rowbot doesn’t sell its machines but instead leases them. “You heard it here first: RAAS, or Robots as a service,” said This Week in Startups host Jason Caalcanis, modifying the popular (and lucrative) acronym for Software as a Service or SAAS.

And while the incredible shrinking machine may be trite metaphor to a techie used to the faster, cheaper, smaller trends defined by Moore’s law, the notion of smaller machines is radical for the farm space. And yet the vast majority of the farms on the planet remain relatively small, particularly in poorer nations. A few years ago, when my colleague Danielle Nierenberg and I surveyed those technologies that are most effective at reducing hunger and poverty, for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our Gates colleagues repeatedly asked about answers to weed control, harvesting and other labor-intensive tasks on small African and South Asian farms. They knew that even in poorer nations, farm labor is not always available, as people are flocking to cities in increasing numbers.” (https://medium.com/food-is-the-new-internet/the-rise-of-small-farm-robots-365e76dbdac1#.6pk1gee8q)

Brian also gives a number of examples:

* HelloTractor. Calling itself the Uber of Farm Machinery, this startup based in Washington, DC and Nairobi, Kenya, allows farmers to request 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. Owners can help offset the cost of their purchase 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 whole communities grow. HelloTractor owners can help offset the cost of their purchase by renting it out via an Uber-like interface.

* 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: targetted 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, but there is demand across Africa and a clear need for the same sort of machine “helpers” that my neighbor Marilee was so excited about. I think of the farmers in my community who envy a neighbor’s compost spreader or grain mill or legion of budding apprentices. And the farms that either fail, or never get started, because they don’t work as a one-man, or one-woman, operation. In this context, being able to call on Rowbot or HelloTractor, might make the difference between farm survival and farm extinction.

* BeanIoT, a sensor the size and shape of a bean developed by Cambridgeshire-based RFMOD that can be added to silos or other grain storage to monitor humidity, temperature and spoilage. And Infratab is developing active RFID labels that record freshness data points every 30 seconds and can be put on food packages — or even individual fruits, vegetables or groceries — to indicate if the foods have exceeded certain temperature or humidity thresholds that would compromise quality and safety. The soil-based sensor company CropX has just raised $10 million on the notion that its “internet of the soil” tool will save farmers time and money. These don’t have moving parts like what we think of as robots or machines, but they do “help” farmers in the same way a Rowbot or Agribotix drone will.”

Curator’s comment: by itself, these types of machines will not be enough to undo the centralization of agricultural lands and production, however, by lowering the treshold for mechanisation, as part of a larger mix, they can certainly assist in such a potential trend. Leasing ‘closed’ machines from a commercial firm however, do not create more autonomy for individual farmers.

1 Comment How the emergence of distributed farm machinery may undo the centralisation of agriculture

  1. AvatarAndrew McClure

    Agri robotics has the potential to enable the cultivation of high value organic crops on marginal land without the need for excessive or perhaps any chemical control.

    This in and of itself is very exciting.

    If such devices can be shared between farmers; and their development costs be aggregated by using open sourcing – then even better.

    We are involved in the development of a low cost 900Mhz telemetry solution for farmers – utilising open systems and interfaces. If there is an appetite to help share the cost of our development (nearly at a beta phase), then feel free to get in touch.


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