Robots in the Mud

There is a lot of well-deserved interest in agriculture these days. After all, growing food is critical in any economy and is uncorrelated to gyrations in the stock market. In fact, the value of Iowa farmland out-perform the DJIA. The question here is, can high tech robotics improve our yields, returns, and efficiency?

Recently, a group of researchers from Harper Adams University in the UK designed an integrated system of robots to undertake all the necessary farming steps to grow and harvest a one hector plot of barley. While the barley yield in their experiment was below par, I give them high marks for trying.

However, I couldn’t help remembering last year when I was in the field during soybean harvest.

The rain was making the harvest window short so harvest started early that morning in less than optimal conditions due to soggy ground. We typically plant in rows and harvest in rows. At one spot in the field, the combine got stuck in a muddy row and tipped just enough for the auger to catch on the top of the grain wagon. Had the drivers of both the grain wagon and combine not stopped immediately, the auger would have been ripped off and set harvest back days while waiting for expensive repairs.

After some careful human maneuvering, the grain wagon got free and the auger was undamaged. The next decision was whether to proceed with harvest. It was decided to stop harvesting following the muddy rows and instead, to harvest across the field at a diagonal. After that, harvest continued successfully with no further mishaps.

I doubt a robot out there on its own could have made these maneuvers and decisions without human intervention. There is a lot of expertise that goes into farming, well beyond just planting and harvesting. This is particularly true in my world of organic farming. Organic farmers rely on their ability to manage machinery, choose crop rotations carefully, mitigate weeds and provide nutrients without using chemicals, observe their fields to understand where care is needed and all the while, meet the high standards for USDA organic certification.

Indeed, we use a lot of technology, just not robots and I choose farmers over robots in the field any day. And you can tell by the look on faces that harvest time is the best time of the year when farmers finally get paid for a year’s work. Have you ever seen a robot smile?