LIVERMORE, Calif. – March 3, 2023 – With its long hours, grueling physical demands, and dependence on the fickle nature of weather, farming has always been a difficult way to make a living. On top of these perennial challenges, today’s farmers are facing even more stressors — labor shortages, increased climate instability, and a rapidly declining population of critical pollinators. Increasingly, they’re relying on Agtech startups to solve the massive issues that are threatening their ability to produce affordable food and stay in business.
A Technological Lifeline
The idea of employing robots, digital solutions, and autonomous, electric battery tractors as farmhands may sound futuristic, but these forms of Ag technology are being used in the field right now. Launched in 2018, Monarch Tractor brought the world’s first driver-optional, smart, fully electric tractor to market in an impressive three years. Monarch’s sense of urgency was driven by the need to give agriculture a solution that makes economic sense for a farmer and helps the environment.
In an interview with Forbes, Monarch Tractor CEO and co-founder, Praveen Penmetsa said, “Whether it’s labor or water, or even fertilizers and pesticides, those are all the resources that are very expensive. With our tractor, with the data we’re collecting, farmers can be more efficient with all those resources.”
Elevating Farm Labor
With its high-value produce and vineyard crops, California generated more than $51 billion in revenue according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But getting that product into consumers’ hands is proving to be more problematic. Farm labor shortages attributed to tighter immigration laws and a decreased interest in farm jobs mean that there simply aren’t enough hands available to care for and harvest crops to get them to retailers. Enter Ag technology. A driver-optional, electric tractor like the Monarch MK-V doesn’t displace labor, it empowers a farm’s limited workforce to bridge the widening gap between the jobs that need to be done and the dwindling pool of workers willing to fill those roles. Moreover, an electric tractor like the MK-V gives those workers engaging responsibilities and valuable Agtech experience.
“Instead of one driver sitting on a tractor going up and down a row, that same driver can manage three or four tractors at a time and finish the operation faster,” said Praveen during his Forbes interview.
In addition to struggling to get crop harvests to market, farmers are grappling with unreliable weather patterns that are severely damaging and lowering overall yield. Having a zero-emissions battery tractor is a starting point in addressing climate concerns, but farmers need accessible Ag technology that gives them measurable ROI right now. Mega droughts interspersed with torrential rainfall, record-setting late freezes, and the increased frequency of wildfires stress plants and initiate power outages. The Monarch MK-V in-tractor battery provides exportable power of 5.6 kW for equipment in the field. And stay tuned. A $3 million grant from the California Energy Commission is allowing Monarch and its Farm Electrification Consortium partners to demonstrate the ability of a battery tractor to keep critical electrical loads running as well as respond to power grid pricing fluctuations to maximize savings in energy costs.
The rapidly declining population of invertebrate pollinators is a looming crisis. A report sponsored by the United Nations estimates that 40% of invertebrate pollinators are threatened with extinction. From April 2020 to April 2021 alone, beekeepers across the U.S. lost 45.5% of their honeybee colonies according to a nationwide survey by the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP). Honeybees alone pollinate up to 80% of flowering plants, a list that includes more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables.
Some of the culprits behind these collapses include pesticide use, loss of habitat, and poor nutrition. Robotic beehives that monitor and safeguard ideal hive conditions are one strategy. A battery tractor and automation are another. Electric, driver-optional tractors with data collection capabilities, like the Monarch MK-V, are helping farmers reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides with localized applications that minimize or eliminate unintentional drift. The MK-V can also make regenerative farming practices affordable for an agribusiness. This is good news for pollinators, including the endangered Monarch butterfly, our company’s namesake.
It's true that the challenges facing farmers are serious, but innovative, future-thinking Agtech companies like Monarch Tractor are proving it can be done.
Ohnsman, Alan. (2023, March 3) With Labor and Climate Challenges, Farmers Turn to Robot Beehives, Tractors, and Fruit Pickers. Forbes.
USDA 2021 Farm Income and Wealth Statistics, cash receipts by state.