Last time I wrote about autonomous trucks disrupting the business of long haul trucking. But many of you may not be aware of the similar revolution in large-scale farming: what I call UFVs (unmanned farming vehicles).
We were a little ahead of schedule on a recent Midwest road trip. Since we were near Moline, Illinois, we stopped in at the John Deere Pavilion. John Deere was a blacksmith and general repairman in the village of Grand Detour, Illinois. He also made small hand tools for farmers like pitchforks and shovels. In 1837, John Deere created a self-scouring steel plow. Prior to his plow, a farmer would have to stop his horse every few yards to remove the stuck-on rich Midwestern soil; Deere’s plow eliminated this build up and was a key factor in the migration into the American plains in the nineteenth century. Deere also did business differently: instead of building his products when they were ordered, he built up a stock so his customers could see the plow, and load it up on their wagon and take it back to the farm. For 175 years, John Deere has been making state-of-the-art farm equipment for farms of all sizes and is now the largest agriculture machinery company in the world. You have probably seen a green and yellow tractor busily mowing one of your neighbor’s lawns.
The John Deere Pavilion we visited was for the other end of spectrum: the business or corporate farmer with more than a few hundred and up to more than 2,000 crop acres. As a point of reference, 640 acres is a square mile. For that size enterprise, a single tractor can cost about a quarter of a million dollars, with a combine coming in at over $500,000. But what you get with that today is pretty close to a UFV. With advanced GPS controls, the tractor can navigate the farm pulling cultivators and other equipment, overlapping rows by just six inches without the farmer touching any controls. The equipment will test the soil every few yards so when planting it knows exactly how much of what fertilizer to put down with the seed, significantly reducing the amount of fertilizer needed. This saves money, but more importantly reduces the environmental impact of farming by only using fertilizer where it is needed.
At harvest time, the up to forty-foot wide combine will cut the crop, again overlapping by six inches as it goes back and forth across the field. When one of its hoppers is full, it calls a tractor pulling a large wagon. The tractor runs alongside the combine and the combine unloads the full hopper into the wagon, then the tractor heads back to the storage area. All this while the combine is harvesting, and without the farmers on either vehicle touching anything.
These vehicles do not have the old metal seats of the nineteenth century tractor, or even the relatively comfortable seats of a lawn tractor. These vehicles have an air-conditioned cab, a seat that is as comfortable as any you might have in your office or even your living room, satellite radio, two touch screens to control the major activities and monitor the equipment, and a refrigerator. The equipment is designed to run 24 hours a day, with shifts of farmers on board for eight to twelve hours at a time.
This picture is of a combine with a relatively small header (the cutting and gathering attachment at the front). This one is only 22 feet wide. The orange dome on the top of the cab is the GPS unit. If you look carefully, you will see that the farmer is sitting back in the seat with his arms on the arm rests of the chair; he is doing nothing to control the combine. You might also note that the cab is level even though there is a slight slope on the ground.
Today there must be someone on board, primarily to monitor the equipment status but also for safety reasons like watching for rogue animals. The Pavilion had a prototype of a fully autonomous tractor: no cab, no seat. I expect we will see fully autonomous farm equipment working in the fields in the next couple of years. This equipment will be able to prepare, plant or harvest a large field without someone onboard. Eliminating the farmer on board saves a lot of weight and cost for the cab and environmental, safety, and manual control systems. It would also eliminate the need to have the cab held level for the comfort of the farmer.
At the John Deere Pavilion was a much smaller harvester: a rice harvester, made exclusively in China and only sold in China. I was told that was the only one of its kind that was not in China. It is designed for the smaller rice fields in China. Notice the cab is not nearly as fancy, but the design is based on the needs of the Chinese rice farmer and will enable them to increase their productivity without the hard manual work of rice harvesting.
The last word:
Why does this matter? The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization believes that food production must increase by 60% to feed the expected nine billion humans who will be alive in 2050. With today’s technology, one farmer can accomplish in one day what it took six or more farmers a week to do just twenty year’s ago. See a six-minute movie on how John Deere uses big data to help farmers improve productivity here.
I think John Deere’s vision is helping. The day before we got to Moline, a farmer came in to pick up two of their big harvesters, and would be back in a week or so to pick up the other four he ordered.
We literally would starve in the US without the improvements companies like John Deere have made since a single horse pulled a single plow blade at about 2 miles per hour.
Keep your sense of humor.