‘Robot farmers’ pioneer climate-resilient farming in the North Country – North Country Public Radio

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One of AgBotic's greenhouses. The highly-automated facility uses and array of sensors to manage the interior climate and provide water and nutrients to crops. Photo: Ryan Finnerty
Sep 03, 2021 —
Ryan Finnerty'Robot farmers' pioneer climate-resilient farming in the North CountryAbout a mile outside of the village of Sackets Harbor, a cluster of long, white buildings rises from a field on the shore of Lake Ontario.
The facility sits in contrast to the early 19th Century architecture of the nearby town, and unlike the surrounding farms, there are no sprawling fields of corn or barns full of dairy cows.
But that is exactly what this cluster of buildings is: a farm. It also features something not typically present in the average farmstead: a bank of computer servers.
“It’s meant to continually improve the efficiency with which we grow crops, get higher yields and continuously improve the quality of crops we’re growing,” says owner John Gaus.
Gaus, a Watertown native, is the founder of AgBotic, the company behind this facility.
The firm is using highly automated, next-generation greenhouses to cultivate crops under precisely controlled climate conditions.
AgBotic patented a "robot tractor" that can seed the ground, monitor crop growth, and provide water and nutrients as needed to 10 rows of crops in various stages of development. Photo: Ryan Finnerty
Farmers around the world face growing uncertainty, as climate change produces more extreme weather events like droughts and floods. That includes the Great Lakes region, where the AgBotic farm is located.
The aim of Gaus and his company is to pioneer a high-tech solution to that problem and take the environmental uncertainty out of farming.
Anyone entering the AgBotic complex has to walk through a shallow tray containing a hydrogen peroxide and bleach mixture, to kill any harmful organisms that may be hitching a ride.
The farm is certified organic, meaning there are no pesticides employed to keep insects of fungi out. Gaus says this is mixture is the strongest chemical in use at the facility.
A single worker can oversee operations in an AgBotic greenhouse using just an iPad. Photo: Ryan Finnerty.
Past the server farm and the disinfecting tray, a sert of double doors leads to the actual farm.
Six green houses, each around 100 yards in length, converge on a central warehouse.The room feels more like a manufacturing plant than a barn. Fans whir, pipes and ducts snake overhead, and technicians shuffle in and out.
One of the workers leads us into a greenhouse, filled with neat rows of arugula. He proudly offers a taste of his recent harvest, plucked from the ground just moments earlier.
Gaus calls these workers the world’s first robot farmers, because many of the traditional farming tasks have been automated.
This arugula was picked by a machine that looks like a large Roomba. Seeding and watering are also handled by a machine AgBotic calls the robot gantry.
“It's essentially our indoor tractor,” he explains. “We can deposit nutrients in the soil we can till the soil form rows. We can plant seeds with a very high degree of precision,” noting how uniformly the rows of sprouts were deposited.
Freshly harvested arugula, grown in an AgBotic greenhouse. Photo: Ryan Finnerty.
The techniques employed by AgBotic are so advanced, the company had to invent many of the machines it uses, including the gantry. The gantry was the company’s first patented creation, now joined by five others.
In the next greenhouse over, the robot tractor is in action.
The gantry looks like a miniature crane, perched just a few feet above ten rows of tiny green sprouts. They are all in various stages of development, but the gantry can simultaneously attend to each.
It spans the entire width of the greenhouse and slowly traverses the length of the crop beds, providing different amounts of water and nutrients to each row, guided by a mountain of data and machine learning algorithms.
“The robotic gantry carries sensors in watering booms,” Gaus explains. “It carries every tool you can imagine from seed to harvest and allows one person to manage this space. Literally farming with the touch of a button.”
That button typically takes the form of an iPad or iPhone, from which the entire greenhouse can be managed.
While automation is an important part of AgBotic’s business model, the sensors are even more critical. Hundreds of data points are collected each minute in the farm’s six greenhouses.
The servers in the front of the building analyze the data and automatically adjust factors like temperature, water, and nutrient levels to optimize growing conditions.
A special lightweight, translucent fabric covers the curved roof of each greenhouse, a more cost and energy efficient alternative to traditional glass.
That adjustable, closed environment allows AgBotic to grow year-round using organic techniques. In addition to avoiding chemicals, this system opens up the full range of crops for cultivation, even plants that could never grow in the natural climate of Northern New York.

“We literally can grow almost any type of plant anywhere within reason,” Gaus says. “One of the big differences from hydroponic systems is we can grow root crops, woody stem crops and a whole range of crops you don't typically see in a hydroponic greenhouse.”
That all may sound prohibitively expensive. 
But the fresh vegetables and specialty crops grown here, like ginger, noni, and industrial hemp, come with much a higher profit margin than corn, wheat, or soybeans.
Gaus says AgBotic can generate per-acre profit margins as much as 100 times greater than what a conventional farmer growing corn could expect.    
“We're increasing over those outside yields because we have a controlled and protected environment. The plants are never subjected to any harsh environmental conditions that they would experience outside.”
Growing tropical plants in the North Country winter may sound unrealistically energy-intensive, but minimizing the farm’s carbon footprint is a company priority.
Gaus says the New York Green Bank assessed AgBotic’s current operation as carbon-negative, meaning it actually removes CO2 from the environment.
That was achieved through a multi-pronged effort.
The North Country’s abundant hydropower is a major contributor, providing on-demand, carbon-free electricity. AgBotic also maintains dedicated fields outside its greenhouses for carbon-absorbing trees.
AgBotic still employs human workers, who oversee operations and sometimes fill in for machines. Founder John Gaus says traditional farm workers have adapted well. Photo: Ryan Finnerty
The company also employs a natural gas-powered cogeneration system onsite as a backup source of power. Waste heat from the co-gen is used to maintain the temperature in the greenhouses.
Any carbon dioxide emissions from heat or electricity production are captured and pumped back, into the indoor farms for crops to consume.
It has taken around a decade to get the current two and half acres of covered space under cultivation. Crops grown by the company’s robot farmers are already on shelves in 350 locations across New York State, according to AgBotic.
They have aspirations to export the technology from North Country, worldwide.
Gaus thinks the company’s technology holds promise for countries like India, where the effects of climate change are expected to hit particularly hard and could threaten food supplies.

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