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This Robotic Farming System Could Be the Answer to Labor Shortages

Brandon Alexander grew up on farms, acres and acres of wheat and other broad acre crops in Texas and Oklahoma. So, it’s not entirely surprising that he applied his other expertise—based on a robotics degree from the University of Texas and work at Google X—to some of the biggest issues facing modern farmers: water use, labor shortages and total yield.

Iron Ox, which Alexander co-founded with Jon Binney, uses two robots and a cloud-based “brain” to grow lettuce, tomatoes, basil and more in a hydroponic system in its first production farm in San Carlos, California—a facility they claim is the first indoor, fully autonomous robot farm. The company, which started in 2015, is now growing 8,000 square feet of produce, and plans to begin selling to chefs and restaurants later this year, then local grocery stores in 2019. Eventually, the startup wants to open farms across the country, offering local produce year-round.

Are robots the future of farming? Why isn’t everybody doing it? And why is the little one with two eyes so cute? Alexander walks us through his new robot-to-table method.

Let’s start with the problem. What problem are you trying to solve with Iron Ox?

There are three macro problems that we’re trying to solve at the same time. One is access to fresh produce. Right now the average travel distance for strawberries, tomatoes, a head of lettuce, is 2,000 miles. And that’s because farming, right now, is highly centralized to just a handful of counties in the entire United States. What we want to do is decentralize farming, so we can grow close to the consumer.

The other big issue facing agriculture today is labor scarcity. The average age of a farmer is 58 years old. We’re finding that newer generations, not just in the United States but across the globe, are not taking up agriculture. There’s a multibillion-dollar loss right now because there’s not enough people to do the work.

One of the big things that we’re concerned about too is food deserts and how you can sustainably provide fresh produce to everybody. And that’s one of the reasons we selected hydroponics for our growing, because it not only can reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by growing locally, but we can also use 90 percent less water.

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