Autonomous Equipment in Organic Farming w/ Craig Rupp
Interview with Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto
What can organic farmers do to combat the labor shortage in agriculture? The answer could be tied to autonomous equipment. Craig Rupp of Sabanto explains how farmers can use swarms of autonomous equipment for longer hours to increase efficiency.
Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com
Learn more about Sabanto: www.sabantoag.com
Connect with our guest on LinkedIn
INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower, where we hear from top experts in the commercial organic industry. With a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field, you will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. Here’s our host, Tom Buman.
Autonomous Equipment in Organic Farming
TOM: Craig, how will autonomous equipment change organic farming? What can we expect to see change in organic farming through autonomous equipment?
CRAIG: There’s one thing that we discovered when we started doing autonomy. It was the spring of 2020. When we went out and planted, we started getting inundated by organic growers. And it dawned on me, being involved in some of their operations, that for the conventional farmers, labor is an issue, obviously. And it’s amplified with the organic growers. They’re covering the field. They’re doing more passes. Their weed control is steel, and they do multiple cultivation. They’re tine-weeding. They’re rotary-hoeing. They’re cultivating. They’re doing all sorts of field operations, more so than your conventional farmer. So I think that there’s going to be a big push in the organic market, more so than the conventional. Some of the growers, they’ve ‘sized’ their equipment for their labor. But the problem with the organic growers is they have laborers in the seats much, much longer than what the conventional guys have.
TOM: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I see when I watch some of the videos, and you have some great videos on LinkedIn about the things that you’re doing. I encourage viewers, maybe, to take a look at those. But all your equipment that you are running seems to be small-scale equipment.
CRAIG: We’re focused more on the number of hours of autonomy because that’s how we learn. And I look at it this way. Horsepower equals work divided by time, and so horsepower is inversely proportional to time. If you increase time by working more hours, then you decrease horsepower, and that’s the approach that we’re taking. We seem to be focused on smaller equipment working in longer hours.
Autonomous Equipment for Organic Growers
TOM: I think that fits into the organic world. We have a lot of people who are doing 500 – 800 acres of organic farming. And certainly, they can’t justify big equipment for a lot of that. But I also think that there are some really good benefits to organic farmers because typically they tend to use smaller equipment too. So, when we look at some of the soil health issues that all organic farmers are interested in, less compaction, less weight out there and higher efficiency makes a lot of sense.
CRAIG: It’s specifically a problem. We’re working with one grower who spreads chicken litter on his organic acres. It’s just insane as to the weight of that fertilizer equipment. He had said numerous times, I mean, this is killing my soil. So compaction, I think with the push for sustainability and regenerative agriculture, I think that compaction will become a main topic in a lot of these farming operations.
TOM: Two things. One, you have the tractor pulling the spreader. But the spreader, obviously, the more you can put on it, the more efficiency you have because you don’t have to load as often. How does autonomous equipment change that equation?
CRAIG: Well, I see a day where most farmers pile their chicken litter, for example, on the side of the field. Then they load it into these rather large spreaders. I see a day where there are just smaller ones in a swarm, just going out and applying and trying to keep the weight down.
Scaling Autonomous Equipment
TOM: Right. I like the idea of a swarm where you have multiple tractors. Have you done any estimates on scale? So you’re an organic farmer. You have 500−1,000−2,000−4,000 acres. Is there any kind of ratio of maybe implements to acres, tractors to acres, something like that, that you’ve looked at and said, ‘Three tractors to 3,000 acres or one tractor to 1,000 acres?’ Is there any ratio you’ve looked at?
CRAIG: To answer your question, yes. I do have a 60-horsepower tractor that planted 750 acres last spring, primarily in Missouri and Nebraska. I think the future is there is going to be a set of smaller equipment dedicated to a fixed number of acres. And I think it’s easier for the farmer to scale them. If they want to acquire more acres, then what they do is they bring in another fleet of smaller, less capital expense type of equipment to take on those extra acres.
TOM: Yeah, it seems to make it easier to scale too. Because if you pick up another 500 acres or something, you add another tractor. Whereas if you’re just buying very big equipment, you’re kind of stuck with what you’ve got.
CRAIG: I work with a lot of big farmers. And if you ask them what’s their average field size, they’ll say about 160 acres. And it makes sense, quarter section 160. It makes total sense as to why that number is there. So our thought process is a future where you deploy an autonomous machine out in a field. And within 24 hours, it could finish that 160 acres. So that’s where the 60 to 90 horsepower, that was the mindset that we had when we went that route. Plus, you can throw it. You can pull it behind a three-quarter ton pickup. They’re very inexpensive to lease, so there’s just a lot of thought that went into 60 and 90 horsepower, where we came to. To say that, though, we are looking at larger horsepower equipment for certain field operations.
Autonomous Equipment & Tillage Implements
TOM: Sure. I think there are those operations, full-width tillage or something, where it makes sense to have a little bit bigger equipment.
CRAIG: Absolutely, and we’ve gone on 170 – 200 horsepower equipment, as well. We’re trying to be a generic, brand-agnostic platform that works with various-size equipment.
TOM: So, as you’re looking at organic farmers and autonomous equipment, it’s one thing to run a piece of equipment through a field. That doesn’t make what it’s doing effective. Are there things that you’re putting on your tillage implements? I know there are some optical things. There are some enhanced things when you talk to people that have looked at organic farming and especially weed control, I think. Are there things that you’re working with?
CRAIG: We’re adding a lot of sensors to our implements. That’s really what we’re focused on, having the ability to detect any anomalies in the implement or on the implement. And we’re working towards that end.
TOM: Well, Craig, thanks for joining us today. Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto, it’s good to talk to you.
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