On high-tech small farms, ro­botic milk­ers, au­to­mated green­houses are just the start

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Steve Lohr

BUL­GER, Pa. – About 150 Jer­sey cows in the rolling ter­rain at Riven­dale Farms in Bul­ger, some 25 miles west of Pitts­burgh, wear Fit­bit-like col­lars that mon­i­tor their move­ment, eat­ing and ru­mi­na­tion pat­terns. They are milked not by hu­mans but by ro­botic ma­chines.

A nearby green­house, about a quar­ter-acre in size and filled with sal­ad­bowl crops like kale, arugula and baby car­rots, is au­to­mated. The tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity and sun­light are con­trolled by sen­sors and re­tractable metal­lic screens. And soon, small ro­bots may roam the farm’s 8 acres of veg­etable crops out­doors to spot dis­ease and pluck weeds.

Farm­ing in Amer­ica is in­creas­ingly a high-tech en­deavor. Com­bines guided by GPS, drones, satel­lite im­agery, soil sen­sors and su­per­com­put­ers all help the na­tion’s food pro­duc­tion. Yet that tech­nol­ogy is mainly tai­lored for big in­dus­trial farms, where fields stretch as far as the eye can see.

Riven­dale Farms, which has just com­pleted its first year of full op­er­a­tions, of­fers a glimpse of tech­nol­ogy com­ing avail­able for smaller farms.

Tech­nol­ogy for gi­ant farms is all about in­creas­ing yields and cut­ting costs. For smaller farms, too, ef­fi­ciency is para­mount. But tech­nol­ogy can also elim­i­nate a lot of te­dious, rou­tine la­bor – a life­style pay­off that can help per­suade a younger gen­er­a­tion to stay put on fam­ily farms rather than sell out.

Smaller farms typ­i­cally raise spe­cialty crops on lim­ited acreage. Spe­cialty farm­ing re­quires a scaled-down ap­proach, like the small ro­bots be­ing de­vel­oped for Riven­dale by sci­en­tists at nearby Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity and the ex­pand­ing ar­ray of equip­ment from the “slow tools” move­ment, a group of farm­ers and en­gi­neers de­sign­ing af­ford­able tools for small farms. The goal at Riven­dale, said Thomas Tull, the farm’s owner, is to cre­ate a “bou­tique, cut­ting-edge farm, en­abled by tech­nol­ogy, that pro­duces great food.”

Riven­dale can af­ford its com­bi­na­tion of cut­ting-edge com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy and sci­ence ex­per­i­ments be­cause Tull is a bil­lion­aire se­rial en­tre­pre­neur, in­vestor in tech-re­lated ven­tures and for­mer film pro­ducer. He is also on the board of Carnegie Mel­lon. He has spent sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars on Riven­dale so far. But the plan, Tull said, is for the farm to be­come self-sus­tain­ing by 2020.

So Riven­dale can try more things at once than oth­ers can. But its ef­forts, ex­perts say, are part of a broader trend among small farm­ers seek­ing to raise healthy food and live­stock us­ing less fos­sil fuel, fer­til­izer and pro­cessed feed. “We’re see­ing greater use of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and tools in smaller, soil-based farm­ing, and that vi­sion is be­ing whole­heart­edly em­braced at Riven­dale,” said Jack Al­giere, farm di­rec­tor at Stone Barns Cen­ter for Food and Agri­cul­ture, a non­profit farm in Po­can­tico Hills, N.Y., that has been a lead­ing ad­vo­cate for sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture on small farms.

Walk into the dairy barn at Riven­dale and there are no peo­ple – only cows, an au­to­mated feed sys­tem and three ro­botic milk­ing ma­chines.

The Riven­dale cows are milked four times a day on av­er­age, when they feel ready, com­pared with the tra­di­tional twice-a-day reg­i­men when hu­mans man­age the milk­ing. And its Jer­sey cows pro­duce 15 per­cent more milk than the av­er­age for the breed, with a higher pro­tein and but­ter­fat con­tent, said Chris­tine Grady, gen­eral man­ager of Riven­dale.

“They eat when they want, lie down when they want and feed when they want,” Grady said. “And a hap­pier cow pro­duces more milk and bet­ter milk.” Ro­botic milk­ers have been avail­able for years. But the tech­nol­ogy has steadily im­proved, re­quir­ing far less hu­man as­sis­tance than a few years ago.

The ma­chines cost about $200,000 each. With­out them, and an au­to­mated feed­ing sys­tem, the milk­ing barn at Riven­dale would re­quire five work­ers in­stead of be­ing mainly over­seen by one, Grady said.

Ge­orge Kan­tor, a se­nior sys­tems sci­en­tist at Carnegie Mel­lon’s ro­bot­ics in­sti­tute, is lead­ing the ef­fort at Riven­dale to de­velop “scout­ing ro­bots” to iden­tify dis­ease and weeds in the veg­etable field, and then send smart­phone alerts if there is a prob­lem.

His team did field work and col­lected data in the fall, then shifted to a univer­sity lab for the win­ter. Com­puter vi­sion and ma­chine learn­ing, Kan­tor said, will be de­ployed to dis­tin­guish healthy plants from dis­eased ones and weeds. A next step would be to get rid of weeds. Or­ganic farm­ing avoids pes­ti­cides. And dig­ging up or pulling weeds, Kan­tor said, would re­quire hand-like grasp­ing and hold­ing, a more daunt­ing ro­botic task, where progress has been slower.

To most long­time farm­ers, AI stands for ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion, not dig­i­tal wiz­ardry. But a new gen­er­a­tion of fam­ily farm­ers is wel­com­ing ro­botic as­sis­tants and smart­phone apps.

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