Robots are changing the future of agriculture – CNET

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It's cloudy in early October and I'm driving my rented Jeep Wrangler around a maze of industrial buildings in Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton is a small town 30 miles north of Cincinnati with a population of just over 62,000 people. As in much of Ohio, agriculture is important here.

I'm on my way to a farm called 80 acres, but it's not the vast Midwest wheat field you imagine. This technically oriented farm is located in a 100 square meter, inconspicuous warehouse.

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You can't say it from the outside, but this is a busy farm that has tested over 100 different leafy vegetables.

Megan Wollerton / CNET

Food and agriculture contribute most to the economy in Ohio. There are approximately 78,000 farms in Ohio, making it high on the U.S. state list by number of farms. His biggest crops are soybeans, corn and wheat.

But US agriculture is in trouble. According to the 2017 agricultural census published in April 2019, there are approximately 2 million farms in the country spread over 900 million acres, and they had total sales of $ 389 billion in 2017. All three numbers are lower than they were five years ago. There are fewer farms, less land for agriculture, and the remaining farms make less money.

There are many reasons for this decline, from falling commodity prices and climate change to a trade war with China. There is also a growing tendency for larger companies to generate most of the profits. Less than four percent of U.S. farms made more than two-thirds of agricultural sales in 2017.

80 Acres Farms doesn't just want to produce fresh, regional products for Cincinnati and neighboring areas. it wants to completely revise the food system in the USA.

"We decided that [food] The industry was really broken and had to be repaired from the inside. Farmers fight and they I don't want their children to be in agriculture, "said Mike Zelkind, CEO of 80 Acres, as we watch a robot named" Sam "skilfully maneuver green-leaf containers around a row of stacked shipping containers in the Hamilton warehouse.

I'm here to see how 80 acres is changing agriculture in this corner of Ohio – and how its sister company, Infinite Acres, is selling its sustainable technology to other farms with the ultimate goal of "feeding the world".

A plan to feed the world

Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, the President of 80 Acres and CEO of Infinite Acres, came up with the idea for their farm relatively new industry in 2015. Indoor farming is a type of climate controlled agriculture that usually relies on artificial light and other technologies to grow plants indoors.

Zelkind has great respect for the early pioneers of indoor farming, but they don't have one that distinguishes 80 acres of farms: He and Livingston have more than 50 years of experience in the food industry.

Zelkind worked for General Mills from 1991 to 1996. He later joined VP and SVP at ConAgra Foods, Bumble Bee Foods and AdvancePierre Foods. Before founding 80 acres with Livingston, he was CEO of Sager Creek Vegetable Company.

From 1995 to 2014, Livingston held various positions at Pierre Foods and AdvancePierre Foods before becoming VP and then COO at Sager Creek Vegetable Company.

The duo has been witnessing systemic problems with the food industry for decades. According to Zelkind, three things have to happen so that a lasting, positive change can take place: We have to grow things differently, change the supply chain and the distribution channels as well as the goods differently.

For 80 acres of farms, "growing things differently" means indoor farming.

Indoor farms can grow products without pesticides all year round. This immediately removes concerns about synthetic or natural pesticides used in commercial and organic agriculture, the inherent seasonality of traditional free-range farming, and weather-related issues related to climate change such as droughts and floods.

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Mike Zelkind and his business partner Tisha Livingston stand in front of the robot Sam in their farm in Hamilton, Ohio.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

"Even if you grow it differently, you can't limit it to an interrupted supply chain," added Zelkind. Tomatoes and strawberries are grown for transportation – and U.S. groceries travel an average of at least 2,000 miles to get from the farm to your grocery store, he explains.

Tomatoes and strawberries are grown specifically for thicker skins and picked by farms before they are ripe – so they can survive the 2,000-fold trip to your city. If you factor in the travel time, the shelf life of the products is considerably shorter than for a pick-up at peak times that is delivered to a local shop.

80 Acres places its farms near the shops it serves and currently has six fully functional facilities. There is one in Alabama, one in North Carolina, two in Arkansas and two in Ohio, including the one I am visiting today.

The 80 Acres name comes from their other farm in Ohio, which is on a quarter of an acre of land and the equivalent of growing 80 acres Worth harvesting.

Ohio farms supply local grocery stores, including Kroger, Whole Foods, Jungle Jim & # 39; s, and Dorothy Lane Market (a store in Dayton, Ohio that also makes the best brownies I've ever eaten).

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80 Acres has its own product department in downtown Cincinnati Kroger.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

The final hurdle for 80 acres is marketing their groceries, which they pack on-site in-house. For this, they forget the 80-acre technology and rely on taste. "We try aggressively in the store because once you've tried it, you know," said Rebecca Haders, vice president of creative and marketing for 80 acres, who accompanies us today.

Of course, the tech is real Not It doesn't matter if the products don't taste good – but Zelkind, Livingston and Haders agree: You can really * taste * the difference between typical grocery products and products from 80 Acres Farms.

I bought a box of their "Fireworks Tomatoes" from a Kroger in downtown Cincinnati and they were right. They were tasty. They tasted better than regular grocery tomatoes, but were comparable to the freshest and tastiest products on the local farmers market.

A disadvantage is the price. The 9-ounce box with 80 acres of cherry tomatoes cost me $ 3.99. Conventional Kroger cherry tomatoes come in a 10-ounce box and cost $ 2.49. Kroger's Simple-Truth cherry tomatoes cost $ 2.99 for a 10-ounce box. Even Whole Foods, a brand known for its higher prices, sells packaged tomatoes for less than 80 acres.

While 80 acres of tomatoes were better, I wouldn't want to spend more than $ 1 every time I went to the store. I asked 80 acres why budget-conscious customers – or really customers – should buy their products when it costs more. Haders tells me that the retailer sets the price, not 80 acres.

"Based on feedback from consumers, we know that customers greatly appreciate our consistent aroma, the truly pesticide-free, local, freshly picked tomatoes. Today's prices are in line with the local, organic, but we intended economies of scale. Lower prices without Product quality that affects freshness or taste, "added Haders.

Your focus may be on taste, but the truth is that Zelkind and the rest of the team are very interested in the technology. It is the crucial element that has enabled 80 Acres Farms to grow so quickly. It is also the key component in solving the challenges associated with overhauling the food industry.

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80 acres of "Fireworks Tomatoes" are described on the packaging as an "explosion of taste".

Megan Wollerton / CNET

A top secret facility

"This facility is top secret," says Zelkind when we stand in front of ten stacked shipping containers. "Everything here is proprietary." I'm the first reporter to see it, and Zelkind, Livingston, and Haders are talking about the technology here in muffled, excited tones. While other indoor farms rely on technology, 80 Acres has chosen a more holistic commercial approach, in which fully automated robots load shipping products and computer systems to monitor the crop and manage their lighting schedule.

The team has been trying hard to build this farm for five years. They brought along technology from other companies and also experimented by building their own in order to get as close as possible to an "optimal" indoor farm. Every new farm they build benefits from the things they learned last time – and this facility in Hamilton is their newest and most modern farm.

"We are excited and afraid and have come further than anyone else we know. And we are absolutely nowhere. We know that this will not work, and that is yesterday. We are working on tomorrow," explains Zelkind.

80 Acres Hamilton Farm has 10 shipping containers that are 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet high. Each shipping container has four to six levels and can hold approximately 4,000 plants. If every shipping container is full, that's a total of 40,000 plants. This facility focuses on salads and other leafy greens.

There's a reason why 80 acres and other indoor farms focus on these types of plants, explains Erik Runkle, a horticultural professor at Michigan State University. Customers want them all year round despite seasonal availability – and leafy greens are usually transported long distances, although it's perishable. Their nutrient content can also decrease during shipping.

Then the question arises: How economical is indoor farming really? In short, we don't know exactly yet, Runkle tells me. He and his colleagues from the state of Michigan and other universities received a grant from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) to investigate this, but even after four years of study, Runkle does not expect the answer to be a simple "yes" or no . "

Commercial indoor agriculture in the U.S. started about 8 to 10 years ago, explains Runkle. He estimates that today less than 1% of U.S. agriculture comes from indoor farming. Most of the early companies stopped operating. There are still some well-known pioneers like AeroFarms from New Jersey.

"Indoor farming will always be much more expensive than anything that is grown in a field," adds Runkle. He doesn't expect indoor agriculture to replace traditional agriculture soon – or maybe ever. But he sees it as a possible solution in places where water is a restriction and irrigation in the field is either unrealistic or impossible.

Fortunately, some technological advances have reduced the cost of indoor farming and made it at least a little more profitable today than it was a decade ago.

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Ten modular "growth zones" are stacked in their warehouse. During my visit, the team tested dozens of different types of leafy greens.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

LED lights were one of the most significant technological advances that made 80 acres possible. Older lamps cost more money, consume more energy and make the environment too hot for plants. With LEDs, 80 acres now has adaptable, automated lighting systems that can be used to simulate daylight with different color temperatures. They use less energy, spend less money and the plants are happier too.

This farm also relies on two robots, Sam and Barney, to handle most of the heavy lifting. The bots load and unload pallets of plants from each shipping container according to a set schedule – or manually, as required. Other companies are still hiring people who use scissor lifts to transport these heavy plant containers, explains Zelkind.

There are cameras in every container, so that the team can stop by their plants at any time. 80 Acres develops machine learning to detect irregularities – pests, color defects, different plant sizes and much more – so that growers do not have to watch the plants around the clock.

If the cameras detect an anomaly, the 80 Acres team can report the anomaly to identify the potential problem more quickly and work towards a solution.

"We use all of this [technology] to help breeders, not to replace breeders, "says Zelkind. Today’s AI technology is nowhere near where it should take over a breeder’s work, but creating space for technology has the nature and Definitely changing the way growers deal with plants. 80 Acres even offers its own training courses in which employees are trained in the use of their technologies.

Agriculture with a controlled environment is playing an increasingly important role in agricultural schools at the University of Arizona, Cornell University, the University of Nebraska and many other schools.

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Operations manager Tim Brobbeck is so dedicated to the job that he sometimes sleeps at Hamilton Farm.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

Tim Brobbeck started as a breeder at 80 acres three years ago. Brobbeck is now the manager. Brobbeck says it can be difficult to assess what is going on with a particular plant if you can't climb up and access it easily. The cameras help, but sometimes it's still difficult to tell what exactly is going on. This technical learning curve is exactly what Livingston, as CEO of Infinite Acres, focuses on.

Infinite mornings – and beyond

Infinite Acres is the technology company of 80 acres. As head of Infinite Acres, Livingston is working to make the technology as intelligent as possible to help growers and the rest of the team here. But there is another goal that goes well beyond Hamilton Farm or the five other 80-acre farms: she wants what she has learned about 80-acre indoor farming technology to other farmers around the world to sell.

80 Acres is open to selling its technology to other farms to help them run the business or just sell the technology, train existing staff to use it, and let them use it, Livingston explains. They would like to share their knowledge of lighting, sensors, image processing systems, robots and automation with other farmers – and there is a great demand for them.

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These are "R&D" plants, leafy greens that they test on the Hamilton farm.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

I ask the 80 Acres team what makes them so special and how they managed to keep going. "Our family tree is great," says Zelkind. Their failures, coupled with their existing knowledge of the food industry and their real passion for work, keep them going.

"We say & # 39; fail quickly and cheaply with tremendous insights", http://www.cnet.com/ Livingston adds. It's kind of a motto. You made a lot of mistakes, you are welcome to admit them.

You have killed many crops. They had so much moisture in growth areas that it literally rained and killed everything. "We were at a point in the process where we just continued sowing and knew that we would kill all the crops we had," says Zelkind with a giggle.

But they have come this far and are committed to training a new generation of farmers like Tim Brobbeck to make healthy products more accessible than ever. "I love the scalability of [80 Acres] and the idea that one day we might go out and maybe feed the world, "says Brobbeck. That sounds pretty good to me.