The public opinion of agriculture technologies has seemingly reached its tipping point. From dealers and distributors to startups and manufacturers, industry experts report that their farmer customers are ready to bring autonomous machines to their operations. In the U.S., some of the largest players in the production of vegetables already have.
Bonipak, a full-service operation that encompasses Betteravia Farms in its seed-to-sales approach to fresh vegetable production, is a pioneer in this arena. Bonipak brought its first mechanical in-row weeder—the Garford Robocrop— onto the fields 11 years ago when “mechanical weeding” was little more than a buzzword. For the Santa Maria, California-based operation, the weeder was just the beginning.
“At first, we were trying to understand the capability of that machine for our organic production,” says Alain Pincot, managing partner at Betteravia Farms and Bonipak. “This was at a time when labor was still fairly available and the cost was lower. The mechanical weeder was a significant investment, but in the spirit of entrepreneurship, we decided to test something new. From there, we saw the potential.”
Bonipak uses automation to tackle its most challenging tasks
More than a decade later, the farm has worked with nearly every manufacturer in the mechanical weeding space. This includes FarmWise, Naïo and Robovator. Pincot says that because the technology moves quickly, the operation is always discovering new opportunities to learn about each options strengths and limitations. Bonipak focuses on continually improving and refining the current weeding system.
After the positive experiences with automated weeding, the operation turned its attention to thinning technologies. Bonipak produces a large crop of leafy greens. Thinning is a necessary, but often back-breaking and time-consuming, part of the process. Traditionally, it is done by hand.
“We realized very quickly that technology could help us with this need as well,” Pincot says. “By now, we have two machines from Mantis Ag Technology working full-time during most of the year. They rely on vision technologies and are very much adaptive. They use cutting-edge plant recognition software to deliver the spacing between plants we want.”
The next innovation Bonipak implemented was a semi-automated harvesting machine to help with its Brussels sprouts crop. Another painful task that is frequently completed by hand, harvesting Brussels sprouts requires a lot of labor. Today, the operation has three units from Tumoba, a company based in the Netherlands, which works most of the year providing relief to what has become a skeleton crew.
Because Bonipak not only grows and harvests its produce, but also cools, processes, ships andtransports it, the operation has additional technologies dedicated to packaging in order to help streamline the work after the product is cut. Most of these machines come from Europe. Pincot describes harvesting as a whole as a work in process, but he is encouraged by what’s already happening. Once the operation can fully automate the cutting and packaging processes and bring them together, Pincot says Bonipak will have achieved the “Holy Grail.”
Investing in machines requires investing in people
In the meantime, Bonipak will continue to add automated technologies to its operation and improve on the systems already in place. Pincot credits the operation’s success in this area to a number of factors. The first is that the operation is blessed to be large enough for economies of scale; it can afford to invest large amounts of money per unit to introduce the latest technologies. The second is that Bonipak has figured out how to minimize downtime and maximize efficiency by surrounding itself with the right people.
“It comes down to, how do we, as farmers, keep all this sophisticated equipment working in conditions that are sometimes sub-optimal? We’re talking rain, dust and other factors,” Pincot says. “The answer is that there is an investment to make in people.”
As Bonipak moved to increase the amount of automation on the farm, the partners realized that the existing managers didn’t have the knowledge needed to manage problems when a machine went down. The operation responded by hiring mechanical engineers and technicians that can be trained to be well-versed in these technologies. Students from the nearby universities have been a great source for hiring new employees.
“Our engineers have the right knowledge to intervene when there is a problem, quickly diagnose it, fix the machines themselves or communicate with the right words to customer-service representatives in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands or elsewhere,” Pincot says. “These conversations can get very technical, so having the right people in place has been a key to our success. And because the machines can be fixed more quickly, we’re able to schedule them day in and day out. The units are expensive, so we really want to focus on return on investment and payback.”
The challenges of developing automation for specialty crops
While Bonipak has benefited from adopting a wide range of advanced technologies, Pincot says there is still more work to be done. He believes that the agriculture industry’s greatest need has yet to be addressed by automation and robotics.
“We ourselves grow 10 to 12 different crops, and with the exception of the Brussels sprouts, everything is harvested by hand,” Pincot says. “We have been lucky to have had, for so many years, dedicated labor to do it. Now, we need to find and fund more initiatives and research to help us harvest our crops using technology.”
This, Pincot notes, will be easier said than done. Startups and manufacturers have their work cut out for them.
“The needs are extremely complex because every crop is different in size and shape and will require tools that are very specific to its nature,” Pincot says. “This is a hard fact for companies to contend with because the machines they are building are expensive and need to build enough of them to cover their R&D money. Industry-wide, these machines would potentially be used on fewer acres because they are so tailored to each crop. This is the manufacturers problem, but it becomes our problem because many companies don’t see the benefit of engaging research for these purposes—especially the large well-known manufacturers.”
The good news is that there are more agtech startups to help tackle the problem. Pincot says that in the last five years, an influx of venture capital investments has not only enabled the U.S. to catch up to the technologies long available in Europe, but it also opened the door for more companies who are inspired to address farmers’ existing needs. The conversation is continually shifting.
“We used to just talk about automation mostly in terms of saving labor, but now, we’re talking about it more and more in terms of saving on input costs, like fertilizer, and optimizing pesticide applications,” Pincot says. “All of these needs rely on machine vision and analytics for the benefit of farmers. I think the next five to 10 years are going to be really exciting and fun. There will be new discoveries about people’s motivations that lead companies to make even better machines.”
Discovering new ways to optimize the current technologies
The prediction about savvier machines ties into Pincot’s belief that data will be the next frontier for autonomous technologies. The current machines are already gathering and storing information about every plant it “sees.” The next step is knowing what to do with it.
“I would say the big revolution has already happened in terms of weeding techniques, but I think now we are focusing more on managing the details,” Pincot says. “That is a bit grey for me because I've been offered the data from our machines and most of the data that are provided so far, I kind of know already. So, what information is there that can actually help me and ensure those machines have an even greater payback. It’s a question that remains open, but data exploitation, mining and sourcing are definitely going to be a part of the future.”
As the agtech industry continues to advance, farmers will find new ways to use the technologies at their disposal. They’ll discover the machines’ strengths, and they’ll also encounter limitations.
“Automation is not just about autonomy,” Pincot says. “No matter how great an autonomous machine is, we still may not be able to operate it as efficiently as we need based on the legal framework. Some autonomous companies that broke ground on autonomy are now moving some of their equipment behind tractors. They are going back to the old-fashioned way because we cannot exploit autonomy to its maximum based on the rules.”
The recent Cal/OSHA ruling on petition 596 is one example, but the regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Pincot remains optimistic. It will simply take a few years to give farmers greater freedom to use their machines as they see fit. In the meantime, Pincot is excited about what can already be accomplished.
“The technology is constantly evolving,” he says. “We are at the center of that, and very pleased to be.”