Founding an Autonomous Farming Company w/ Craig Rupp

Interview with Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto

Show Notes

Can organic farmers really complete most of their field operations with autonomous equipment? Craig Rupp discusses this possibility while highlighting his own experience using autonomous technology on over 1,000 acres. Craig also shares the origin story of his autonomous farming company Sabanto.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com 

Learn more about Sabanto: www.sabantoag.com 

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn


Podcast Transcription

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.

TOM: Joining us today is Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto. Craig, welcome to the show again.

CRAIG: Thank you, Tom.

Founding an Autonomous Farming Company

TOM: Craig, so I know that you’re working with Sabanto. Autonomous equipment is your focus, but let’s talk about Sabanto. Let’s talk a little bit about how you came to be, what your goals are, what your focus is, especially as it relates to organic farming.

CRAIG: We were founded in October of 2018, and I just knew that autonomy would play a part in agriculture. I worked around a lot of farmers, and labor is always an issue. So what I did was I went out, and I took a JCB 4220, and went out and bought an 18-row, 20-inch planter. I got a CDL license and spent the winter writing software. And what I wanted to do was go throughout the Midwest deploying an autonomous planting system for farmers. And I wanted to understand what the challenges were. So I came back in 2019, and then I hired more people. And the first thing we did was we reduced the size of the equipment, partly because of just the capital expenses in the large equipment. The second thing is we wanted to be mobile. We wanted to be at the drop of a hat. We can move from point A to point B without having a drop-deck trailer or a lowboy and requiring a CDL. So we went with a 60 – 90 horsepower range. I was leasing the JCB 4220 tractor, and what I did was I turned around and leased a fleet of smaller Kubota tractors. What we learned, in 2019, we spent almost the entirety of 2019 building mission control, building path planning, the tractor OS, making sure we can monitor and control the smaller tractors and also spent a lot of time building them up. 

Autonomous Planting throughout the Midwest

CRAIG: In 2020, we ran out planting with four smaller Kubota tractors, operating a swarm. And again, we planted throughout the Midwest, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. And we deployed three in one field at one time, so that was something else. Software was, really, in alpha. There were a lot of things that we needed to improve on. But what was interesting with us is when we came back in the 2020 planting season, we started getting inundated with organic growers. It was kind of interesting. One of them called us. He’s over by Moline. He wanted us to do cultivation. Every 10 days, we had to go out there and cultivate the soybean field. We signed up for that, and what was really neat was we went out the first time, and we had a lot of software. We had hardware issues. We were battling that, but then we had 10 days to fix those. After 10 days, then, we got much better. Then we went out and did it again and came back and, okay, this needs to be fixed. Our path planner needs to be improved here. Those five passes of cultivating really improved our software and our hardware, our communications, our front end, our back end. Everyone was running on, we called them, 10-day sprints.’ We would go out, cultivate, fix all the problems that we could, go out and do it again. Then we started getting introduced to just different organic operations and starting to work with them. We spent the fall of 2020 doing just high-speed tillage for some farmers in Illinois. That’s when we started to see light at the end of the tunnel. 

Using Autonomous Equipment on 1,000 Acres

CRAIG: We had a great path planner. We had absolute control in monitoring the tractor and equipment. Data was flowing into our back end. We had a pretty mature mission control, where we could deploy paths and to certain tractors. It really improved in that aspect. Then, in 2021, we started working with some large organic growers and started to take over acres for them. Well, one in particular, we took over 1,000 acres, and we did everything short of planting. We did primary tillage, which was rototilling. We rototilled 1,000 acres, we field-cultivated, we planted. We tine-weeded, rotary-hoed multiple times and then cultivated multiple times. And what was nice about that is we had a lot of hours and a lot of field passes. And we had a lot of, I’ll say, unique field passes. And you of all people know that, planting, you can do things while you’re planting that you cannot do with cultivating. Drive over crops, for example. My software team really learned about just the differences and how to account for them. That’s a little history. And this year, what we’re doing is we’re scaling our autonomy. We’re actually taking everything we’ve learned, generating a system that people can install on tractors. In particular, there’s an organic cotton grower who sent us a tractor, his tractor. And what we’re doing is we’re adding an autonomy system onto that. Then he is going to be planting, cultivating, tine-weeding, you name it, organic cotton down in Texas.

Guidance in Autonomous Equipment

TOM: One of the things all organic growers face is weed control, right? How do you go out and cultivate and get just as close to the row as you can without damaging the roots or tearing out some crops? 1,000 years ago, when I was a kid, that was always a big deal of dad’s, right? You have that rear-end cultivator, and you take out some crops, and you get to hear about it later. So how is your guidance? Is your guidance based on steering, or is it based on how close you are to the road? What do you use when you’re doing weed control in organic farming? What is it that you use to guide the operation?

CRAIG: We used RTK. I would say we have really good control of that tractor, it’s steering. And we took the as-planted because we had that within. Oh gosh, it’s very accurate, GPS RTK. Then what we did was we used, in 2021, we used RTK for our guidance. This year, what we’re doing is we’re adding the technology to improve our following the row. And we’re using imagery and analyzing video feeds to help us get as close as we possibly can to that row.

TOM: When I was a kid, the cultivator was underneath the tractor, right? It was in front of it, between the wheels. Does your cultivator, do you try to do something like that? Or are they all rear-mounted cultivators anymore?

CRAIG: Ours was a rear-mounted cultivator.

TOM: Does that make it more challenging? Because it’s behind the tractor, and it swings a little bit differently? Or do you account for that in the process?

CRAIG: We account for that in the process. There’s a difference between heading and course, right? So what we do is we monitor both those, and then we adjust ourselves accordingly. Typically, we’re using Buffalo cultivators right now.

TOM: Well, Craig, thanks for the update on Sabanto. We appreciate your time, and we look forward to another episode with you. Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto, thank you.

OUTROThank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.