AutoCrop’s story begins on a small wheat farm in North Dakota.
In that northern tier, we can raise one crop a year. Mom had a large garden that held the joys of producing good fresh foods with our own labor. Sweet peas, carrots, corn, okra and more! In the fall, the kitchen was turned into a canning factory to stock the shelves for winter meals. The bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, and corn went into the root cellar. Year round, we always had home grown food on the table. Some would be sold at the local farmer’s market. The wheat and other grains we grew always went to a far off place called Minneapolis and beyond.
With a 90 day growing season or period from seed to harvest, the land largely set idle approximately 270 days of the year, it was a low margin business for my mom and dad.
As a child, I was fascinated knowing our crops sitting in the bin would go down the Mississippi River, a exotic locale I could only imagine through Mark twain’s stories. No matter how I thought of the Twin Cities, which I now know and love, I could never understand the transporting of crops thousands of miles to a market where it was further processed and value added.
As I grew older and farmed some myself, I came to realize that we, the small farmer, are the foundation of a well fed society. But we often do not get any of the value added processes after the crop leaves the field. I always thought if my dad could have a farm in the middle of a city, we could get some premium for our goods. Further, if we could increase the frequency of harvests and process our grains into breads and flours we could capture the entire value chain and have a market premium as a niche local, year round market player. These thoughts have never left my mind. But, It’s impossible to have a farm in the middle of a city, right?
Today, things have substantially changed. We live in an urbanized world of approx 7.6 billion people. As our towns and cities continue to grow and farmland is lost to houses, the question becomes what does Ag 2.0 look like for an urbanized world? The intensive burden placed on our lands, water usage and energy come to the forefront in this conversation.
Will small farmers continue to be marginalized? Are we destined to grow only empty carbs? Or can we, again, grow vibrant healthy fresh good and grains once prolific in our communities? Our past is rich with the varietals that were locally grown by us, our neighbors and communally shared at the table. Can we continue to borrow from our future generations? This is a price that can’t be paid. Or can, we as a species innovate past these bottlenecks? Climate change, depletion of natural resources and the destruction of habitats of all species matters greatly to all of us and the experience we call life.
These changes are rapidly occurring across the globe. Hurricane prone islands cannot feed themselves and import the vast majority of their food. Low lying coastal areas are flooding. Weather patterns are shifting dramatically. Small agricultural communities are disappearing and losing the ability to raise local foods. Mass food deserts exist in the middle of cities and rural areas that once was active farm land and grew heirloom varietals. We are rapidly losing the generational skill set that is our heritage. Mass migrations too urban corridors are reshaping the global map. As these events escalate, food security becomes increasingly to the forefront.
Do we do continue on the existing path of limited answers? Or do we ask uncomfortable questions now, while we have the luxury to change? It’s not a question of if, it is a question of when. The greater question is whether or not a society can continue to successfully feed itself. Cultures that can, generally enjoy a peaceful existence. In America today, we enjoy so much surplus that significant food waste occurs. While this is due to inefficient distribution, it is still a luxury in the greater world of want. Most societies do not enjoy the bounty that is theirs to create. Unlocking possibility is the key to our future.
In a global urban society, many people have access to a garage or a basement. These spaces are ideal for local food production. All that is lacking is an efficient system. For commercial grows, indoor real estate is the most expensive form of land per square foot and a seemingly unlikely place to put a commodity business, yet it is ideal for scalable agriculture.
What is happening here? At this point of time and many technologies are converging. Solar is less $1 a watt, buildings can be weather and hurricane proof, climate controlled and post organic grows that have no chemicals applied are compelling. Indoor grows allow faster grow times and crops perfect in taste, texture and appearance allowing the freshest foods possible at the point of distribution. At this juncture of time and technology, in approximately the last 10 years, the advances in LED lighting, cloud computing, data optimization, and gallons of sunshine available in grid storage are driving the labor and operational costs out of data, network usage and the electric grid.
Human creativity will continue to distribute and advance these technologies. As these peripherals are placed into indoor grows more doors will continue to open. It is similar to Tesla in 2004 putting consumer electronic lithium batteries into a car. Efficiencies will continue to advance and cost will be driven from these systems. In the human timeline it seems to take many years, but in the scheme of human advancement, it is but a moment.
This rapid progression has led us to a place where in the last 10 years the first indoor farms are raising fast turn greens and herbs. These operations are trying to gain a foothold against traditional land farming and greenhouse operations. These operations rely these tech peripherals for the optimization of the biological grow period of the fastest turn crops to keep the business going. Crops such as arugula, basil etc can be readily grown with existing systems. In other words, for example, if it takes 40 days to grow outdoors, 22 to grow in a greenhouse, and 17 days to grow in an indoor grow environment, progress is being made. But is it profitable? The brief history we have is littered with the failed stories of the first mover’s in this space.
Recent commercial operations suggest a more promising future. Fortunately, the peripherals around the grow are reaching a tech maturity point of becoming commodities themselves and these tools are available to all for minimal cost. Today, the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana are vastly accelerating this change and leading innovation within the grow.
All of these factors are a necessarily important part of the march of progress to a sustainable future of global food security, but these alone do not solve the underlying problems inherent in this nascent industry.
If you look past the shiny peripherals and computers, the underlying hydroponic farming system(s) are strangely old and obsolete. New answers are needed.
If we continue to insist on defining hydroponics and agriculture as growing on a flat horizontal surface, we face limited answers. If however, we can ask first principle questions, we can change the perception of what growing is, as defined by:
1. What does a plant actually require to grow? Canopy space and a root anchorage. That is it. With this understanding, we can unlock new tools and find new answers. With new tools in the hands of our neighbors, we will gain new understanding and possibilities. We can enable Ag 2.0 for an urbanized world.
2. Can we look at agriculture as an assembly line or a computer problem to solve? Why not? There are many parallels. Scale, replication, energy consumption, bandwidth and the binary nature of necessary biological processes to function such as water on, water off, light on, light off lend themselves to digital solutions. Why can’t crops advance through the system? Weekly, hourly, or even by the minute?
Is it possible to make the physical, tangible analog art that is agriculture similar to the science of efficiency that are the intangible digital processes of ones and zero’s? i/o? On off?
With the answers we have found in our grows, the answers are resolutely, yes. It will take time to implement, but there is absolutely no fundamental reason we can not accomplish these goals.
Changing these perceptions allows the implausible to become plausible. What does a farm look like, that can fit in a basement or a garage? And can scale to a commercial space? A system where the output is defined not by season, or biological grow period, but Desired Yield X Desired Frequency = System Output.
At AutoCrop, we are relentlessly pursuing making agriculture as close to the physical:digital interface as can be. These answers allow us to solve the big four key costing problems to make a farm in every basement, garage and warehouse economically achievable.
The 4 Big Costs: Labor, excessive utilities, minimal throughput, one crop class.
The machine must be the necessary departure from known systems to begin Ag 2.0
At the very core of a hydroponic grow, the system must be ultralight, modular and plug and play. To be profitable, the machine has to be resource efficient, simple to operate and produce a high frequency and volume of crops. The system must be able to grow multiple crop classes. The machine has to fit in the convenience of your own workspace. The waste stream has to be minimal, recyclable and or compostable. The machine has to be at least 10x better than the pain points of traditional Ag: the system inefficiencies of buying an acre of land, low frequency harvests, paying property taxes, dealing with the weather, possible contaminants, pollution, possible theft and time involved for crop labor and most likely, commuting to the remote acreage to service the crops.
On a commercial scale operation, for crops that lend themselves to one or several harvests, movement must be added to the ultralight modular system. Units must be rapidly deployable, and be growing within days at scale. The biological grow period must be advanced and the crops must come to us. The entire operation of seeding, growing and harvesting must occur within the machine. The machine must use precision gas and light delivery to efficiently use resources. The machine has to be at least 10x better than the pain points of existing indoor grow systems: For the first 10,000 years of human agriculture, humans have always gone to the fields to service the crops.
This march has continued with indoor farming. Multiple, repetitive human touch points, use of non precision HVAC systems resulting in excessive utilities while growing only one class of crops tuned for flavor and based on only the biological grow period using heavy, clunky old systems that don’t scale and take 12 months to install before the grow can begin! Even worse is the .. go to .. of adding robotics to increase the efficiency of an inferior system! This is not a business model. The labor cost of workers going to the crop is a nonstarter. There is no means to add bandwidth.
I believe, that, as of today, 9.23.19, and going forward we can, in fact, have a farm in the middle of every town, city and island on Earth.
This is where our story truly begins. We are not replacing existing Ag, we are a new set of tools to add to the diversity of tools in the toolbox. We as a species need every available ounce of production possible. You and I have the opportunity to change what is to what can be. We can address the bottlenecks we are up against. We can put good wholesome food production back into the hands of the people. Our kids can again know the joys of raising, harvesting, canning, and storing our foods. A CSA can be operated from the convenience of your home, in the middle of town. No matter where, the time of year or crop class. Existing crops flourish in our system. More crops are being developed for indoor growing. These are certainly exciting times.
We are building the AutoCrop OS 1.0 systems as close to the physical:digital interface as possible. However, it is still a physical product and takes longer to deploy than software. The first generation of units are always the most expensive to produce. Fundamentally, we must drive costs out of the system. To do this, we have greens and herbs fields readily available.
However, our business resources will follow the money starting with high margin crop classes such as marijuana, pharma and other high value crops or venues. As we go to states and countries that are legalizing these crop classes, we will demonstrate both our food production and marijuana systems side by side. As our installed user base grows and costs can be spread over ever more units, we will be able to lower system costs and bring more crops online, profitably. It takes time to build valuable things.
While there is some distance to go before we can achieve my childhood dream of profitably raise commodities such as wheat in the middle of a city, every beginning happens only once. Together, we will get there.
As we begin this journey, we welcome you to the AutoCrop family. It is with sincere gratitude that we are here together at this point in time and place of evolution and have the opportunity to question, answer and solve fundamental problems within our common ancestry of food production. We are all in this together. The next chapter of agriculture is a diverse community full of possibility and access to healthy foods across the globe and beyond. It begins today.
Founder and Chief Executive Officer