Can An Electric, Self-Driving Tractor Help Save the Small Farm?

When we think of autonomous vehicles, we envision luxury limos transporting executives from their Hamptons homes to their Madison Avenue offices while reading the morning stock reports. To suggest that Farmer Brown needs a self-driving vehicle to get his turnips to market would prompt derisive laughter from the sophisticated set. But Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder and CEO of Monarch Tractor in Livermore, CA, would strongly disagree.

Can An Electric, Self-Driving Tractor Help Save the Small Farm?

Penmetsa points out that contemporary small farmers face a number of problems that Monarch’s high-tech vehicles can alleviate. First, there’s the labor shortage. Driving a tractor is a skilled position, but small farms cannot pay as well as the construction industry for heavy equipment operators. As a result, farmers spend time teaching new hires to operate tractors, only to lose them once they have sufficient experience to make that vertical move.

If a tractor could run by itself, the labor shortage would be less of an impediment, and farmers could save on the $23 to $30 an hour they’d otherwise be paying. Those savings would multiply as more tractors are employed; the Monarch system allows one farmer to supervise up to eight autonomous tractors from the comfort of his office. Those tractors can run for up to 10 hours, and then require four to five hours to recharge.

Then there’s the environment. People outside the agro-industry generally think of farming as environmentally friendly. After all, farmers live close to the Earth, no? Well, not quite. A diesel tractor used for plowing will generate 17 times more exhaust than the average car. Many commercial farmers also depend on industrial-strength weed killers, which have nasty consequences for the environment.

But trading out herbicides for the mechanical process of removing weeds requires farmers to use equipment that burns fossil fuels. So, it’s really a matter of trading poisons. Now, a Monarch electric tractor can perform mechanical weeding without generating tons of carbon exhaust.

Finally, there’s data collection. As farm product consumers—that is, people who eat stuff—become savvier about what goes into them, they demand to know how crops have been raised. What herbicides have been used? What fertilizers? How clean is the environment in which these crops have been raised? High-tech tractors can constantly collect data points necessary to certify the farming practices demanded by a sophisticated market.

Farmers with verifiable data could potentially earn more for their products and expand their customer base. The data collected also alerts the farmer about actions that should be taken to remediate issues with crops, thereby reducing losses due to spoilage.

So, what does the autonomous electric tractor look like? Okay, it’s less like a ’67 Mustang, and more like a super-charged riding mower. It’s small and generates only a fraction of the horsepower of a conventional tractor: 70 as opposed to 400. All this makes the Monarch Tractor a better fit for the small-to-medium-sized farm, rather than the huge agro-conglomerates. But, hey, it’s the little guy who needs the help this tech delivers. And, at an affordable price point—$58,000 for a basic model—smaller farms should soon be able to take full advantage.

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