The Planted Row: Are robotic farms the future of ag?

Farm Forum

Recently, a coworker showed me a website marketing a new product called FarmBot Genesis. The name is something of a misnomer because it’s basically a small robotic garden. (A quick internet search reveals the name GardenBot is already taken.) It will plant your vegetables for you and water them individually with an appropriate amount for their type, age, soil conditions, and local weather. It will even weed your garden. (Maybe they’re saving pest removal, and harvesting features for later versions.) You input what kinds of plants you want to grow on a website, and the robot takes care of almost everything else. It’s basically a 3-D vegetable printer.

You can pre-order your FarmBot now. They haven’t been manufactured yet, but the company expects to deliver the robots next February.

I could see how a family passionate about fresh food but with little time and living in an area with not a lot of space would enjoy this device. However, it’s unfortunate that the video explaining the device begins with the sentences, “When presented with the current food production system, one cannot look past how broken it is. We have surrendered our knowledge and control over how our food is being produced, and as a result we’re destroying our health and the environment.” These words are accompanied by images of large scale agriculture.

First, our current system of food production is not broken. We’re growing more food with fewer resources than we ever have. We’re only getting more efficient. While there are some things we might want to improve — such as how to pay our farmers so they remain in business, improving access to farmland, managing our nutrient runoff and protecting pollinators — the system is not broken. It’s just still in the process of being fine-tuned.

Second, while I admit most people have surrendered their knowledge of how food is produced, I don’t think we have surrendered control. There are tons of options in the market place these days. You want organic, grass-fed beef? There’s someone marketing that to you right now. You need large quantities of affordable food to feed your family on a budget? Walk into just about any grocery store and acquaint yourself with the generic brands. My point is this: we exercise our control with our wallets. We let the market know what we are willing to pay for, and the market responds with a solution. We still make the management decisions for the food that ends up on our table — we just do it with our money.

Third, we are not destroying our health with our current food production system, and we are finding new and profitable ways to protect the environment all the time. We’re in a continual process of improving our efficiency and minimizing our environmental impact.

Now, I find it ironic that the makers of FarmBot decided to promote their product by attacking large-scale food production. After all, they just invented a device that plants, irrigates and weeds crops autonomously. All a human has to do is touch a few buttons. Does that sound familiar? It should seem pretty familiar to farmers who program the seeding rate and varieties for each spot in a field and let a satellite drive the tractor and control the planter. It should seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen a dairy run by robots that feed and milk the cows and can even tell when a cow is pregnant.

Do the makers of FarmBot think their technology can’t be scaled up? I could foresee a future landscape potentially covered in farms managed by larger, more robust versions of this device.

I think FarmBot is an intriguing invention with the potential to be important in our food production system, but the company could have chosen a better marketing strategy.