A Bosch employee controls a deep field robot called BoniRob at a field in Renningen, Germany. (Photo: Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

Should We Bet the Farm on Ag Robots?

Many corporations and growers in developed nations are convinced that technology will solve agriculture's woes.
Nov 28, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

The average age of farmers in Japan is 67, and life expectancy in the country is 83. With young Japanese moving to cities and birth rates declining, no new generation of farmers is on the horizon. But Japan still has a future in agriculture: Next year a company called Spread will open an indoor lettuce farm staffed entirely by robots. Not only do the robots solve the labor problem, but they also allow the company to maximize productivity, stabilize the food supply, and cut costs, according to Spread. If the lettuce farm is successful, J.J. Price, Spread’s global marketing manager, believes it will only be a matter of time before its robots are tending to additional crops. Meanwhile, other companies in Japan are rolling out autonomous tractors for cultivating rice paddies, backpack-like devices relieve the arm strain farmworkers experience while harvesting crops, and more.

While Japan is closer than other industrialized nations to realizing the robotic farm of the future, similar generation gaps and labor shortages exist in the U.S. and Europe, and robots regularly come up as the solution to those problems. Yet we’re still a long way from turning the Midwest into a Spread-like corn factory manned by robo-combines. So far, the few agribots being used commercially help supplement human labor—they don’t do the jobs but rather assist people with jobs that need a human touch.

To understand the appeal of agribots, it’s important to know what robots are and what they are not. People raised on C-3PO or the Jetsons’ helpful robo-maid, Rosie, may be disappointed by the decidedly non-humanoid ag robots being developed today, many of which resemble tractors more than anything else. Looks aside, agricultural robots can, and arguably should, do more than harvest crops, fertilize plants, or take to the skies to image and data-mine entire farms. They can play a key role in reducing the environmental impact of industrial farming, but the environmental appeal is not exactly by design. Rather, it’s a side effect of the efficiency with which robots can conduct farmwork. While farmers around the world can benefit from the labor savings and sustainability offered by agribots, as things stand, with some robotic harvesting systems costing nearly half a million dollars, most cannot afford them.

The Culticycle is a pedal-powered tractor for cultivation and seeding, built from readily available lawn tractor, ATV, and bicycle parts. (Photo: Green Tractor Farm/Farmhack.org)

Next-generation tractors can perform what’s called precision agriculture: Using a combination of GPS, various sensors and scanners, and precision sprayers, the robo-tractors can target plants and weeds with the exact amount of fertilizer or herbicides required, rather than applying inputs based on the estimated needs of an entire field. This cuts down on harmful nitrogen runoff as well as the overuse of pesticides and herbicides—which is good both for the planet and, because these inputs are expensive, farmers’ wallets. Robots could also increase agriculture’s overall sustainability by decreasing the consumer cost of labor-intensive organic farming.

This technology works for farmers in wealthy countries, but that doesn’t mean robots will solve all of the world’s agriculture problems. They could do more harm. Overall, the robots on the market today are tailored to large-scale farms. A farmer in the United States, where the average farm is nearly 450 acres, would be likely to find an agribot more useful—and more affordable—than a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average farm is less than six acres and 60 percent of all citizens rely on agriculture for employment.

The issues of affordability and access are why DIY agri-tech communities like Farm Hack have been growing in popularity. The organization was started in 2011 with help from nonprofits such as the National Young Farmers Coalition, Greenstart, and Greenhorns. The open-source plans for farming tools featured on the website include the Culticycle, a pedal-powered tractor that can be used for cultivation and seeding; Fido, a greenhouse temperature monitor that can record data and alert farmers when something goes wrong and costs only $125 in parts; and a water wheel transplanter that helps farmers plant seedlings without backbreaking labor. Each of these tools can be customized by farmers to fit their needs.

Water Wheeler Transplanter. (Photo: Aidan Williamson/Farmhack.org)

Although industrial agriculture and its tools are focused on doing a highly specialized task over hundreds of acres, and they are expensive to build and maintain, the tools posted to Farm Hack are relatively cheap and can be altered to suit a diversified farm. Cofounder Dorn Cox compares the model to the original agrarian social network that involved peer-to-peer communication. “The enlightenment period in the 1750s and agrarianism was all about open access to agricultural knowledge and increasing the productivity of the soil,” Cox said. It’s unsurprising that farmers and tinkerers in the U.S. and Europe make up the majority of Farm Hack’s users, as both countries have populations with a large interest in smaller, sustainable agriculture.

The main issue the Farm Hack model has is that not all farmers have the skills necessary to make these tools without help. “There is a huge range of technical ability within the community,” Cox said. He noted that there’s “definitely demand” for skill-building workshops and that with a little help, none of the Farm Hack tools are out of reach for someone who can carefully follow the directions.

From hacked tools to precision agriculture machines developed by venture-backed robotics companies, there’s such a wide range of agribots available that it’s impossible to make generalizations about how farmers should be using them. “We need to be looking at new technologies on a case-by-case basis to understand their productivity and welfare effects on society and environment,” said David Spielman, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Consider Ethiopia, where 85 percent of jobs (most of them in factories or on farms) could be replaced by automation, according to a report from the Oxford Martin School, leaving few options for those who rely on ag jobs if robots make them obsolete. Even if agribots could provide some environmental benefit, it may not be worth it if their adoption pushes the country’s farmers further into poverty.

From left: A feeding robot pushes fodder automatically every two hours to dairy cows at a farm in France; A weeding robot in Saint-Hilaire-en-Woevre, eastern France; An employee of Japan's agriculture machinery company Kubota demonstrates grape picking with the company's latest arm assisted suit 'Raku Vest' at the annual International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan. (Photos: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images; Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP/Getty Images; Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

Though some people may lose agricultural jobs in the U.S. as a result of automation, right now there aren’t enough workers looking for employment in the industry because of low wages, hard work, and crackdowns on illegal immigration. The remaining jobs in a farming sector with more robots may provide a better quality of life in terms of wages and physical toll on workers. As such, Spielman said it’s important to look at whose jobs would be replaced with increased automation. In a developing country, for example, robotization could result in lost income for families, but “it may be that women who used to transplant rice might have more time for taking care of children and ensuring they are better nourished,” he said.

Governments also have a large hand in the type of technology farmers invest in. Policy, Spielman said, is as significant a barrier to the adoption of agricultural robotics as price. In India, for example, the government subsidizes some fertilizers so heavily that “farmers may be overusing it,” he said. The technology is broadly accessible—and broadly detrimental. “Ultimately, decisions are made on the basis of economics,” not individual farms, he said. If labor, herbicides, or fertilizers become more expensive, it’s more likely individual farmers—and entire nations—will invest in technology that reduces the need for them.

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