Entering a new growing season on the heels of a major drought is one of the toughest obstacles a farm family encounters during the year. Many will do anything to reduce input costs, especially fertilizer costs.
Alternative methods to chemical control are popularized in gardens and hobby farms all across the country, but is there a method for large-scale farming operations as financially economical and equally effective as chemical control? Third-generation farmer Clint Brauer thinks so. His company, Greenfield Incorporated in Wichita, Kansas, is using “Bots not Chems” to merge autonomous robotics and regenerative agriculture for a new generation of farming.
“My dad had gotten Parkinson’s disease and I came to believe that it’s coming from herbicides he was around,” Brauer said. “So I decided to set my sights on chemical-free farming. I tried every way I could think of to do it without tilling and without herbicides and settled on, the technology just doesn’t exist, to do it on a large scale. That’s how Greenfield got started.”
Brauer’s desire to produce food with an absence of chemicals was met hand-in-hand with no-till farming and regenerative agriculture. When starting to build farming robots, his first challenge was to solve pigweed infestation, a common chemical-control issue. Fast-growing pigweeds will quickly grow chemical resistance, but the fun part Brauer said, is there’s no resistance to a spinning blade from his robots.
Since then, he has kept the mindset of producing food in a chemical-free environment. Using a technological advantage, the goal is to change the face of agriculture and eliminate harmful carcinogens.
“I did not want to start another tech company. The only reason I started this is I felt like change was needed big time, in farming and in food,” Brauer said. “Based on all those experiences, I saw all the problems. I had experienced them personally. But I could see that you couldn’t solve them without a big leap forward in technology. That’s why I got started. What my dad went through and the fact that a lot of people are eating glyphosate every day, that needs to change. If you can do it a different way, why wouldn’t you?”
How do they work?
The bots are the hallmark of Greenfield Incorporated. Designs include the grass bot for planting and the weed bot to control weeds mechanically using a spinning blade. Each bot can complete one acre per hour per robot. With 10 bots, the fleet could easily finish 100 acres per day.
“The current ones are designed, they move at three and a half miles an hour. It’s pretty consistent,” Brauer said. “They’re designed to run a fleet of up to 10 at once, depending on field size. As they move, we fly a drone to sense where the rows are and then based on where we think those rows are, the robots draw a line. They determine who’s going where as they’re running through the fields together.”
Greenfield bots will move with one inch or less variance. While it’s possible to move up to five miles per hour, there’s more risk with spinning blades and uneven farm terrain. Greenfield programmers found 3.5 miles per hour created the best speed and accuracy.
During the programming process two years ago, a popular setup used by the industry was called machine vision. The concept of machine vision was to use a sensor in the robot for viewing and recognizing an object. When using robotics in agriculture, issues arose where bots were not fast nor accurate enough to be profitable and machine vision was ineffective at night.
“We switched our model a couple of years ago and completely rewrote most of the software,” Brauer said. “It was kind of a gut-wrenching decision to make. But the fact of the matter is, very few people are running acres like we are and we’ll pass them all by in the next two years.”
The new system uses mechanical sensing and programming guidance to detect turns and curves in a field. In essence, the bot will touch every single plant, sense it and compare it to where it thinks the plant is. If the placement is different, the system will automatically adjust as it goes along. It’s all a learning process for both man and mechanical robots. Brauer and his team are trying technologies no one else has done before, but weed control isn’t the only thing on the radar in the company’s future plans.
“This year we’re adding the ability to plant the cover crops and the ability to microdose crops and the weeds,” Brauer said. “Then automated soil testing over the winter next year. So those are the big ones.”
What makes Greenfield bots so attractive compared to conventional equipment?
“The beauty of it is it is extremely safe unlike huge farm equipment that drives down the highway and things happen,” Brauer said. “We actually just put them on a trailer behind a pickup truck. We view them as a lot safer than traditional farming equipment. And as a nonfarmer driver, you appreciate that. We don’t slow traffic very much.”
Once bots are placed in a crop field, a moderator will sit in a trailer and watch using drone software.
“The software is really useful because once you get (the bots) in the field and lined up in the row, you’re just monitoring and reacting to what’s going on,” Brauer said.
All systems are equipped with geofencing as a safety measure. It ensures if bots go “out of bounds” they will instantly shut down. Having a built-in failsafe prevents users, neighbors and family members from getting hurt.
Bringing bots to market
“We’re in a very unique corner of the market and I believe it’ll be the entire market in 10 years or less,” Brauer said. “We’re coming. We’re going to change things for the better. Where I come at this from is not from a greed perspective. I come at it from a let’s get this right perspective.”
Sustainability comes in many modern forms, but Brauer argues he doesn’t build half-million-dollar tractors that are putting more carbon in the air. His Fleet-to-Farm philosophy brings a fleet of bots to the farm to reduce carbon emissions, reduce crop failure risk, reduce chemical inputs and ultimately, protect family health and safety.
“It’s about getting the farmer a premium for a better product, then you can eat with complete confidence with how it was raised,” Brauer said. “That’s a game-changer.”
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