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October 14, 2018

Silicon Valley just got a new automated farm where leafy greens are grown by machines

by John_A

Did you hear the one about the Google software engineer who packed it all in to start a farm? No, it’s not the setup for a joke. Nor is it the premise for some quirky Sundance comedy, probably telling the story of a stressed-out programmer who rediscovers their happiness by moving to the country. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness farm, which just opened in San Carlos, around 20 miles outside San Francisco. Called Iron Ox, the farm aims to produce leafy greens — romaine, butterhead, and kale, alongside various herbs — at a rate of roughly 26,000 heads per year. Oh yes, and it’s staffed almost exclusively by robots.

“This is a fundamentally different way of approaching farming,” CEO and co-founder Brandon Alexander, 33, told Digital Trends. “Traditionally, the farming process means that you seed, you wait a few months, you come back, you harvest, and you distribute. That hasn’t changed a whole lot in hundreds, if not thousands, of years.” Until now, at least.

“This is a fundamentally different way of approaching farming”

Iron Ox’s indoor farm measures around 8,000-square-feet. That makes it paltry compared to the thousands of acres occupied by many traditional farms, but, through the use of some smart technology, it promises a production output that’s more in line with an outdoor farm five times its size. To achieve this, it has a few tricks up its sleeve. For starters, Iron Ox is a hydroponics farm, a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Unlike a regular farm, hydroponic farms grow their produce in vertical and horizontal stacks; every element minutely controlled through the use of glowing LED lights and jets of water to affect the crops’ size, texture, and other characteristics.

In place of a farmer, Iron Ox employs a giant, 1,000 pound robot called Angus. It’s Angus’ job to move the heavy 800 pound, water-filled tubs of fresh produce without spilling them. A robot arm is used to tend the crops, making this the agricultural equivalent of Elon Musk’s automated Tesla factory in Fremont, CA.

“We’ve taken a robotics-first approach to the growing,” Alexander continued, in what can only be described as an understatement. “Everything is designed with that in mind.”

Disrupting the family business

When he was a kid, Alexander was shipped off each summer to his grandfather’s family farm in the Texas and Oklahoma area. Looking back at it today, it’s a cherished memory. At the time, not so much.

“I’ll be honest: I hated it,” he said. “All my friends were going on vacation and I was the one who was stuck on a farm.” When his buddies were sleeping in, he was getting up at the crack of dawn. When they were on the beach, he was on a tractor. Years later, when he and his co-founder and CTO Jonathan Binney, 34, were busy planning out Iron Ox, he called his grandfather. Now 83 and still running a farm, Alexander told him about his plans for roboticizing the work that his family had done by hand for generations.

Iron Ox

But this isn’t a story about a guy who decided to take revenge for summers of hard labor by disrupting the industry. Far from it. Alexander has a deep respect for farming, evident from the reverent way that he speaks about a profession that has looked after his family for years.

“[My grandad is] technophobic; he doesn’t know how to use an iPhone [or about machine learning or computer vision],” Alexander said. “But when I explained what I was doing, he said, ‘This is inevitable.’ That kind of surprised me, but it shouldn’t. When he was a kid, and his dad was farming, they managed 40 acres. Now him and his crew are managing 6,000 acres. He’s seen the progression.”

Just-in-time farming

Farming isn’t an industry that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds in Silicon Valley. It probably should be, though, because the emphasis on farm-to-table produce is only growing. When Alexander and Binney speak to chefs, they regularly hear stories about customers wanting to know exactly where a particular bit of produce has been sourced from, or how old it is.

That typically gets an unsatisfactory answer in the U.S., where the average distance travelled by fresh fruit and vegetables is around 2,000 miles. “There are relatively few places that have the right conditions for growing,” Alexander explained. “Everyone else gets week-old produce.”

Iron Ox

Iron Ox aims to change that by building farms within easy reach of cities. Using its autonomous technology, customers can get fresh greens grown in their neighborhood. Better yet, they can get it year round, since an indoor farm isn’t subject to the same seasonal conditions as traditional farms are.

“We call this just-in-time farming,” Alexander said. He is using terminology that is usually applied to manufacturing, pioneered by automaker Toyota in Japan during the 1960s and 70s. What makes just-in-time manufacturing special is that it focuses on making items to meet demand, rather than creating surplus in advance of need. It means less waste with overproduction, less waiting, and less excess inventory. That works well for cars, computers, or smartphones. The Iron Ox team hope it will work great for crops, too.

A.I. which constantly monitors information relating to nitrogen levels, temperature, and the location of robots.

“In a traditional greenhouse, you’re committed to growing a thousand or tens of thousands of a particular varietal,” Alexander said. “Our systems gives us the ability to fine-tune the nutrients for each crop. We’re only committed to growing a hundred of something at a time. That’s important. Previously you would committed to, for example, kale. ‘Kale’s going great,’ you say. ‘Let’s go all-in on kale.’ But trends change. If we suddenly notice a big demand for purple bok choy or Italian basil, our system can adapt to that consumer demand very quickly.”

Overseeing the farm, like a green-fingered HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is what Alexander calls “The Brain.” This is a cloud-based, A.I. which constantly monitors information relating to nitrogen levels, temperature, and the location of robots. Over time, it will expand this to take into account data pertaining to food orders, or more general information about food-based trends.

Weighing up all this data, it can then make decisions about exactly what should be growing — and in what quantities — in each of the modular tanks.

The road from here

Right now, Iron Ox is starting to take chef’s orders for the two dozen-plus varieties of leafy greens that it is growing from the start. It aims to be in full production by the end of the year. This is still the beginning of the journey, but it’s one that Alexander and his co-founder are happy to be on.

“We had some pretty good, cushy jobs at Google and whatnot,” Alexander said. “We wanted to make sure that, when we took the next step, it was something we were passionate about. It’s not about staying passionate for one year; it’s about whether or not this was something we could put decades of our life into? That’s a different metric, for sure.”

How does he feel about the impact of automation on jobs in the farming community as a whole?

“I think farming is a fairly unique space in this regard,” he said. “Agriculture is one of the few industries right now where they can’t get enough help. That was something that surprised Jon and myself when we first started. When we quit our jobs, we spent four months roadtripping California, talking to farmers. We talked to dozens of outdoor and indoor farmers. One of the questions we asked was ‘what’s your biggest pain point?’ 100 percent of them said that it was labor scarcity. They could not get enough help for their farms.”

Added to this is the fact that, in the United States, the average age of a farmer is 58. “It’s a bell curve distribution, and it keeps shifting over to older and older,” he said.

“There simply aren’t enough people wanting to do this”

Those jobs are not being replaced in equal numbers by the younger generation. “There simply aren’t enough people wanting to do this,” he continued. “And I don’t blame them. It’s hard, back-breaking work. It’s just where it’s going.”

Iron Ox isn’t the only startup applying the latest technology to farming. Other companies and researchers are building self-driving tractors for farms, using CRISPR gene editing to improve the efficacy of crops, and building robots that are capable of picking a variety of fresh produce without damaging it. But Iron Ox’s business model nevertheless represents an enormous step potential forward in U.S. agriculture and the way that it works.

In 1820, more than half of the United States population lived and worked on farms. Today, this is fewer than 2 percent of the population, with the overwhelming majority having moved to the city. Thanks to companies such Iron Ox, people may no longer have to choose between farm and city. If people won’t leave the city for farms, then the farms will just have to come to them.

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