Robots in the Garden

Gardening is big business.  Every year, tens of millions of people head out to their local nursery, hardware store or home improvement chain store to load up on soil amendments, bedding plants and perennials.  They spend a day or two preparing the garden or yard and planting their purchases, and then several months tending them.  The end result of their activity is the harvest of homegrown goodness.
Now, for less than $3000, you can buy a high-tech machine that will tend your four by eight foot garden plot for you.  It will plant the seeds, water them, and even remove weeds.  As I watched the video, I was waiting for a clip of it walking the dog.
I’m sure that as a business venture, the Farmbot will succeed — maybe wildly.  After all, there are plenty of people with excess cash who love the latest gadgets  But it seems to me there may not be much overlap with the folks who enjoy working in their gardens on the weekend.  For most people, spending time in their garden is the point of gardening.  Spending time programming their Farmbot to plant seeds or irrigate them, probably not so much.
On the other hand, farmers of all shapes and sizes dream of having an affordable, efficient robot to do some of the most tiresome labor.  Just having a robot to pull weeds would be a giant technological feat that could save farmers thousands of hours of labor and millions of dollars.  But only if it cost a fraction of the Farmbot.
I did a little math on this gadget to see if it could possibly be scaled up to work on a farm the size of Terra Firma.  Four by eight feet is 32 square feet, or roughly less than one-one-hundredth of an acre.  That would put the retail cost of the Farmbot at around $300K per acre.  Even if they found a way to lower the cost dramatically, we would still be looking at tens of millions of dollars worth of Farmbots for our 200 acres.
Putting that into perspective, the average produce farm in California is lucky to earn $10,000 per acre on a crop — and many crops bring in less than half of that.  Farmbot’s team probably found this out right around the time they decided to focus on backyard gardeners rather than commercial farmers as their end consumer.  But they kept the Farmbot name…”Gardenbot” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Someday in the future — maybe the near future — robots will ply the fields of America’s farms.  But they will likely look a lot more like tractors than like erector sets.  In fact, on the largest farms, tractors now mostly drive themselves already.
In the end, the biggest market for the Farmbot will almost certainly be farmers of a crop I didn’t see growing in their promo video:  Medical Marijuana.  Even though I hear the price has fallen quite a bit recently, you can probably still grow enough of it in a garden plot to pay for the Farmbot in the first year.



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