Robots are shouldering more responsibility at Church Brothers Farms in Gonzalez, Calif.
From sunrise through sundown, rows of lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower are planted, tended to and harvested on the thousand-acre ranch — partially by humans, increasingly by machines.
The products are then packaged and shipped to major grocery store chains and restaurants nationwide. You might have seen their products in the frozen-food aisle under the Green Giant brand at Walmart, Target or virtually every other major supermarket.
But what you probably haven’t seen is how much more work autonomous machines and drones are doing on the farm as the minimum wage ticked up a dollar in California this year, heading toward $15 an hour for larger employers across the Golden State, effective 2022.
“In the past, labor was relatively cheap compared to technology. Today the cost of labor has risen. So technology and labor costs are getting much closer,” said Josh Ruiz, vice president of agricultural operations at Church Brothers Farms, which employs 60 full-time workers. He runs the firm’s innovation department, which brings in tech from other companies and toys with building in-house farm contraptions. “While I wish I could pay everybody who works for me $100 an hour, the problem is our consumers are not willing to pay that kind of food price,” he said.
It’s not just California, and Church Brothers is far from the only farm going high-tech.
Labor costs, climate change and growing food demand are ushering in an era of machine modernization across the nation’s agricultural landscape. The situation prompted Church Brothers to invest in several autonomous robots and drones in recent years. The company even spent a million dollars to create a broccoli harvesting contraption that works, but it requires more investment, Ruiz said.
Advocates for robotic farming tout increased automation as a step toward improving efficiency while freeing people from monotonous, backbreaking tasks that few laborers want to do. Labor unions welcome more machines, so long as farmworkers benefit, too.
“Technological change can be advantageous. We don’t want to stand in the way of creating a production method that’s less taxing on the (human) body,” said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union representing farmworkers in the Midwest and North Carolina. “But agriculture is like any other job. As soon as automation begins to take place, it creates a problem (for) job opportunities.”
Automation has been plucking away at the work humans have to do on the farm for decades. Machines now milk cows, unearth vegetables and package products faster and more cheaply than humans can. But now, in the age of artificial intelligence, robots and computer vision are enabling mechanisms to do even more.
Cameras on drones provide vast information on crop health. Robotic lenses can zoom in on seedlings to predict when vegetables will be ripe for picking. Autonomous machines can roam around and get rid of weeds without a human operator.
Many small farms operate with slim profit margins and can’t or don’t want to invest in the latest gadgetry. However, those that can afford to welcome a shift, having more options than ever to choose from as “AgTech” startups prepare AI-powered systems for a full farm invasion.
Seattle-based Carbon Robotics recently released a new weed-eliminating robot that autonomously drives through fields to target unwanted plants. Unlike other automated weeders on the market, which apply targeted herbicide or move soil to attack weeds at the root, the latest machine uses high-power lasers to zap away pest plants without disrupting the ground.
“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we don’t tear up the topsoil,” said Paul Mikesell, founder and CEO of Carbon Robotics, the manufacturer of the Autonomous Weeder.
Other firms take different approaches to automate tasks on the farm. This year, Tevel Aerobotics Technologies unveiled a flying autonomous robot that uses artificial intelligence to identify ripe fruit and pluck it all day. Industry heavyweight John Deere is investing in autonomy and AI to have its tractors embed individual seeds in the ground perfectly at the same distance and depth thousands of times in mere seconds. Startups like Bear Flag Robotics are working to bring computer vision to tried-and-true tractors on the market.
This comes as drones become more commonplace, too, enabling ranchers to monitor plants and livestock from above.
It all contributes to what’s known as precision agriculture, where farmers use less to grow more or adopt new gadgets to increase crop production while cutting down on waste. The field is increasing in popularity. The market for advanced farming tools was estimated to be about $7 billion in 2020, and it’s projected to reach $12.8 billion over the next four years, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Part of the projected rise stems from farms wanting greater efficiency in the face of labor issues. The number of people working as farmers, ranchers and other agricultural professionals is expected to drop 6 percent by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry has already faced decades of job declines in the United States, even as agricultural production rises to feed a growing population.
Government investment is also expected to contribute to more intelligent devices on farms, analysts say. And not just in the United States.
In October, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a $14.6 million development fund for institutions working on innovations to support farmers. Earlier this year, the European Union kicked off a $9.4 million program to replace unsafe, laborious tasks with machines across Spain, Greece, France and the Netherlands. The European agency also plans to enhance older-model farm equipment with autonomous systems to keep costs down.
It’s the kind of thing Bear Flag Robotics specializes in. For the past four years, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has worked on its suite of AI-powered cameras, GPS and lidar systems designed to be retrofitted onto ordinary tractors. It raised $7.9 million in funding to bring the tech to more tractors.
The firm buys the 15-feet-tall vehicles from dealerships, suits them up with navigation systems and lets growers rent them.
The company works with farmers to set up a boundary map of the area that needs work. Its algorithm plots a path for the tractor to follow, and the equipment uses that pattern to traverse a field. Farming operations pay per acre to use them.
A real-time video feed is shared with the farmer, who can command and control the machine if something goes wrong.
Church Brothers Farms is a customer, though it’s illegal for tractors to move without a safety driver onboard in California, so they assign a worker to be onboard.
“One day, the autonomous tractor might allow me to operate at night with one person managing five tractors, versus having five drivers that don’t want to work through the middle of the night,” Ruiz said.
The farm also deploys weed-killing robots from FarmWise and Naio Technologies that use computer vision to find and weed crops. Smart weeding is a crowded field of AgTech, with companies taking varying approaches to get the task done.
San Francisco-based FarmWise scans the ground for invasive weeds around crops and plucks them out. France-based Naio uses a series of brushes and tools to scrape, suffocate or pull weeds to kill them.
Growers are interested in the robots because hand-weeding is physically taxing, expensive and time-consuming for humans to do. Robots, on the other hand, can get the job done again, and again. And they don’t cut corners if they get tired.
“The machines don’t know that it’s Friday at five o’clock. They can just keep running, and do the job properly, regardless of what the time clock says,” Ruiz said. “They’re programmable and sometimes do a better job because they operate at the right speed.”
It’s true that AI-powered farm machines may one day be able to perform most tasks that require people today. But for the time being, humans have a leg up in some areas, such as handling delicate objects. Robots tend to have dexterity problems, which can cause them to hold objects like fruit and vegetables too aggressively.
“You don’t go to the grocery store and buy an apple that’s all bruised and brown,” Velasquez, of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said. “So some things are going to continue to require human hands.”