I, Farmer.
January 11, 2018 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Robot Agriculture: It's here. "When Heraud confesses his field-test failures to the board, they don’t vote to oust him as he’d feared, but instead encourage him to turn things around....He and his team of 20 engineers launch a 24/7 troubleshooting offensive they call “the surge.” They take turns sleeping on cots in the closet of their Silicon Valley office. They call in husbands and wives to turn wrenches and clamp tubes. They redesign fans, build mounts, change materials, and reformulate chemicals. Heraud consumes Tums by the fistful. By late 2015 they have a glitch-free LettuceBot that can handle the elements. They expand their contracts with farmers in Salinas and Yuma, Ariz. By early 2017, about a fifth of all the lettuce grown in the U.S. has been thinned by a LettuceBot."

"Where Heraud sees lowered chemical use, Reed sees savings. Because of his location, herbicides account for about 40 percent of his operating costs—more than $500,000 a year. On an acre of cotton, he typically uses about 20 gallons of herbicide. After several weeks of trials, it appears the See & Spray robot can manage his weeds with 2 gallons per acre. A robotic weeder is also a huge advantage for no-till agriculture, a practice Reed has adopted in recent years. Tilling is a way to manage weeds without chemicals, but it also erodes and dries out soil, disturbs the microbiome, kills earthworms, and releases trapped carbon. Avoiding tillage eliminates those fuel costs and reduces irrigation needs. See & Spray also liberates Reed from an economic hamster wheel; to use broadly applied sprays like Roundup, each season farmers must buy expensive seeds genetically modified to resist the chemicals. A robot that targets only the weed will allow Reed to buy nonengineered seeds, which cost roughly 75 percent less. But Reed, like many farmers, is struggling to get by. A robotic weeder will be an option only if Heraud can lease his robots at a competitive price."
posted by storybored (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Welcome to 2018, where robots will harvest your lettuce and then strip for you.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 9:13 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Welcome to 2018, where robots will harvest your lettuce and then strip for you.

you say this like it's a bad thing

i mean

as long as the robot isnt trying to harvest me and strip for the lettuce i am fine with this
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:21 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


Kiersten Stead, an investment director at Monsanto Growth Ventures, also provided some funding. The backing was nominal by Big Ag standards—a few million dollars—and partly a way to keep tabs on the young competition. It was also, perhaps, an admission of defeat.

Or, more like "planning ahead to kill this from the inside."
posted by Thorzdad at 9:25 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


This is a good thing.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:30 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


There was a recent episode of the Flash Forward podcast about automated farming. One of the takeaways I got from it was a farm supply company rep who noted that independent farmers are only so interested in automation. Something like a LettuceBot or a Roomba for Pesticide might be of interest, as they make work a bit easier and independent farmers love gadgetry, but that full-scale automated farming is less of an interest as they also like to get their hands dirty.
posted by SansPoint at 9:31 AM on January 11


It's mentioned in the article, and it's worth re-iterating, that as interesting as this is it's been bought by a company (Deere) that has a history of rent-seeking behavior. This may get farmers out of the grip of round-up and round-up ready seeds, but only so that they can run into the grip of Deere's anti-right-to-repair lobby.
posted by tocts at 9:34 AM on January 11 [13 favorites]


This may get farmers out of the grip of round-up and round-up ready seeds, but only so that they can run into the grip of Deere's anti-right-to-repair lobby.

How very Monsanto of them.
posted by Fizz at 9:36 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


I'm still waiting for robotic harvesting. Farm work is back-breaking and overall detrimental to most anyone who engages with it. Having robots that can discern and pick berries and produce will be a godsend for the human condition. Those robots can't come soon enough.
posted by Philipschall at 9:43 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


Farm work is back-breaking and overall detrimental to most anyone who engages with it.


It doesn't have to be. Prone weeders/pickers exist. Long handled hoes exist.

But consumers LIKE $5 a lbs strawberries. And the overseer has no idea if someone his hoeing or just leaning on the hoe if the handle is long - hence short handled hoes confirming work because someone is bent over.

Consumers could opt to pay more for produce but enough do not to create change.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:49 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I like automation generally, an robots to pull weeds, squish bugs, and harvest would be awesome. I do think Deere-Santo(Daniels-Corning Et Al will make robot-ready(TM) seeds , non-opensource robot software, and you won't own the robots, nor the harvest, you will only own the debt (see poulty industrial complex). none of those are robotic problems, those are capitalism problems. let capital invest in the tools and let hackers appropriate them in the collapse.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 9:51 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Consumers could opt to pay more for produce
Really now.
posted by inconstant at 9:52 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


and to think it all began with a Roomba glued to a Salad Spinner
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:57 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I want to know exactly how much more produce would cost if harvesting it wasn’t dependent on near slavery and eternal misery. Give me the numbers, exactly how much would profit margins take a hit , how much CEO salary and bonus would be impacted by securing basic human dignity before prices start to go up and then by how much?
posted by The Whelk at 10:02 AM on January 11 [12 favorites]


Consumers could opt to pay more for produce

Really now.


_██_
ಠ_ృ
posted by Fizz at 10:11 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


and to think it all began with a Roomba glued to a Salad Spinner

You should see the quick cut greens harvester, a cross between an electric turkey carving knife and a carwash powered by a cordless drill.
posted by peeedro at 10:22 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]


It makes sense that Deere would want to get in on this. It's mechanical, and it promises to take profit away from chemical companies like Monsanto and give it to mechanical companies like Deere.

It'll be interesting to see whether they can actually get the tech to be cheaper than herbicides. I suspect that they won't be able to, and that they'll make a big regulatory lobbying push for the environmental friendliness of robots vs. chemicals in order to force farmers to switch to the robots. I wouldn't be surprised to see that happening in the next decade or so if they're able to make the tech work.
posted by clawsoon at 10:27 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


The other thing that I expect to see, if this tech works, is a magical dropping in the price of herbicides and genetically modified seeds so that they remain just a bit cheaper than the robots. I'm pretty sure there's a hefty profit margin built into those prices now.
posted by clawsoon at 10:29 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


It's worth watching the Wendell Berry movie, Look & See. Capital-intensive farming methods involving technology have reduced our food costs, but encouraged corporate farming, and reduced competition except among those large enough to compete. Until corporate labor and sustainability practices are sufficiently regulated, or consumers becoming more actively engaged in food choices, this will remain a race to the bottom. I'm not sure which of those choices will happen last.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 11:14 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Something like a LettuceBot or a Roomba for Pesticide might be of interest, as they make work a bit easier and independent farmers love gadgetry, but that full-scale automated farming is less of an interest as they also like to get their hands dirty.

It also makes them more vulnerable to bad crop years. All that capital tied up in equipment and chemical management practically means more debt. This would wipe out the small farmer with one catastrophe.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 11:23 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


My cousin worked on the LettuceBot!
posted by heatherlogan at 12:13 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


There is also hydroponics automation to consider. It's light-years ahead of field robotics. There's a much more controlled environment so it's less prone to the "bad crop year" problem. People have already made progress in automating harvests too. Strawberries farmed this way are currently luxury items (Japanese Skyberry strawberries), but the cost keeps coming down. I know it's impractical for staple crops, but any greenhouse crop can be automated on a much smaller timescale.
posted by domo at 12:59 PM on January 11


IF you develop automatons which displace and come between people and their otherwise expected livelihood,
THEN...a good share of the spoils belongs to them.

It just seems like the obvious equitable, common sense remedy. A strict liability (and braking force) on the drive to eliminate costly human labor from the stream of commerce.

To reap your riches detached from all the downstream costs of your "innovation"
posted by Fupped Duck at 1:29 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


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