Join Wichita entrepreneur and farmer Clint Brauer as he sets out to change organic farming, starting with herbicidal robotics that would eliminate herbicides and tilling.
In this installment of Startup Diaries, Greenfield Robotics founder Clint Brauer talks about why farming needs robotics to solve many of the issues farmers — and consumers — face. Check out last week's post to learn more about networking in Wichita.
WHY FARMING NEEDS ROBOTICS
Grain gluts. Government price supports being paid to farmers. Farmers going bankrupt.
Why should farms become even more efficient and produce even more crops that the markets are pushing back against?
Here’s why: Our robotics help solve the disconnect between consumers and farmers.
Below are just three — of many — consumer concerns:
- Chemicals in food
- Nutrient density
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Let’s take these one at a time and see how robotics can have an impact.
CHEMICALS IN FOOD
Nary a week passes without the herbicide "Roundup," aka as glyphosate, being found in food or alcohol. At the same time, research is emerging to support the common sense notion that certified organic food has fewer herbicides.
The counter to all this is that the levels are "not above FDA levels." Honestly, that is shouting into a jet turbine. It’s just not going to matter. Public opinion has reached a critical mass.
The bedrock herbicide that farmers have relied on for decades is not going to be available, or will be very highly regulated, soon.
But it’s just as well. Re-released or re-formulated "new" chemicals that replace or supplement glyphosate are already being resisted by weeds.
While I am sure someone is developing another "miracle" herbicide in some lab somewhere, why not just take a simpler approach if one is available?
Farmers are not going to miss these chemicals if they are provided an alternative. They don’t enjoy spraying or handling chemicals potentially dangerous to their families’ health. But they have been driven to do this out of the consumer’s insatiable need for cheap food.
So we are developing the alternative for conventional and organic farms alike.
Our solution: Use mechanical means to control weeds without tillage. Take advantage of lightweight robots to access fields during wet conditions that lead to high weed pressure.
We always talk about crop productivity, but rarely the nutrient value of crops. I have yet to see a farm magazine tout "top manganese yield."
However, consumers are beginning to realize that nutrient value is decreasing.
When farmers are not measuring all nutrients, synthetic fertilizers seems like a great deal. In my area, most farmers add nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) religiously. They also supplement with sulfur and zinc and lime their fields occasionally. But that becomes expensive.
That also leaves out some nutrients. So, on paper, synthetics appear less costly.
However, when you start measuring the value of ALL nutrients, suddenly manure stacks up better along with other organic fertilizers from sea kelp to fish emulsion. Another interesting early-stage company, PrarieFood, creates a product derived direct from manures but without the pathogens or weed seeds. We are testing their product in our greenhouses.
As noted in the article liked above, some of the nutrient issues are due to the focus of seed companies. Nutrient density concerns will also change their metrics for success.
Along with the help of crop geneticists, my belief is that crop rotations, cover crops and animal grazing can solve most, if not all, of our nutrient challenges and protein production challenges. Each of these can improve the fertility and nutrient content of the soil and crops.
We are currently thinking through, and manually testing, systems that enable the improvement of soil fertility with animal grazing and cover crops as the centerpiece of soil fertility. As we learn more, our next generation of robotics will take shape to profitably enable these processes.
We might even replace Warren G, our banana-eating llama, who is in charge of our sheep herd security, with robotics.
Here's a video of Warren G:
Our solution: Our long-term goal is 100 percent utilization of cropland using cover crops, crop rotation and grazing as a way to drive up nutrient density of the crops and lower input costs. Something will always be growing or grazing on our lands to build up the soil fertility. Our robotics will make those processes profitable.
I may be dreaming, but one of my hopes is that all the scientists who are currently worried about weed control and yield can turn their focus to breeding plants that solve health problems, similar to the "golden rice" solution deployed in various territories.
In my mind, we could have fields that were specially grown for consumers to deliver food as proactive medicine.
My dad recently passed away after a decade of battling Parkinson’s disease. His diagnoses was one of the reasons I moved back to Kansas and became a farmer again.
What if we could produce specialty crops that have higher levels of tyrosine in them? High-tyrosine grains and legumes (soybeans and whole grains already contain tyrosine) could potentially stimulate the production of dopamine, which would help with Parkinson's symptoms. It is just an example, but that is the concept.
Our solution: Small bots can lead to increased specialization of crops and higher profits for farmers. Since our bots will be completely driven by software, it could also be programmed to understand the goals to the end consumer and "nanny" the crops in a way that maximizes the benefits.
Consumers have plenty of other concerns about the impact of agriculture on their food, water, security and climate. I think our planned robotic systems can provide a lot of solutions.
But none of the above matters if we do not solve our initial challenge, which is enabling no-till, organic farming without the use of chemical herbicides. I believe robotics are going to unlock a golden age of food production in terms of soil, crop and farmer/consumer health.
Therefore, farming needs robotics.
We would like to thank Clint Brauer for putting the work and time into sharing his entrepreneurial journey with us in Greenfield Robotics' Startup Diaries.