I was at Dell’s big IoT coming out party, which had many working examples, but one really stood out for me. You see, I grew up spending my winters on a ranch and my summers working on a farm. And I quickly concluded that farming sucked. Getting up at an ungodly hour in the morning to fight bugs that had no sense of a decent hour to be awake, set sprinklers, spread pesticides that were known carcinogens, and fight flies for horse crap (I was perfectly happy to let them have it) in hot weather just wasn’t any fun. Oh, and my grandfather had a view that work shouldn’t be fun so if I found a creative way to enjoy the job, like having paint wars while painting the fence, I got punished. So, for me to look at a farming application and think it was cool takes a lot. But AeroFarms was cool.
Making Farming Not Suck
Farms don’t just suck from my perspective. They consume massive amounts of water; they were highlighted as the primary cause for the massive California drought. They are highlighted as massive polluters because the pesticides they use can contaminate ground water and spread beyond the fields being treated (and are often classified as high-level carcinogens). Driving this home, my uncle, who ran the farm I hated working so much, died because of this and the type of cancer he had basically consumed his body. Trust me, it wasn’t a pleasant way to die.
What AeroFarms does is apply IoT technology to farming. It is closer to hydroponics in that they move the fields inside and the result looks more like a factory than a farm. Using below 10 percent of the water, no pesticides, and having yields that, due to optimized environmental conditions and the lack of pests that farmers would die to enjoy, they also don’t use farmers, they use techs.
Now I didn’t like being a farmer, but I’m perfectly fine being a tech.
The advantage of this is that you can place farming inside cities and far closer to the people who consume the produce. This reduces transport cost massively, reduces storage cost massively, reduces spoilage massively, and it also results in a far higher quality product. According to AeroFarms, the cost for producing the product goes down but, due to far higher consistency and the lack of pesticides, the quality and thus the potential price of the produce could go up.
This means increasing margins and reduced risk. Much of what kills a farm is risk. The ranch I lived on grew oranges. California used to lead in orange production, but a disease called Quick Decline wiped out virtually all the orange ranches in the state and now that market belongs to Florida. The poor ranchers either had to change their entire business model or go bankrupt. Many failed. But in a contained environment, you can better isolate and prevent this kind of thing and reduce most act-of-god type risks. Granted, major problems that take out cities like earthquakes and hurricanes would still be issues, but you can harden against these. You generally don’t need or want windows (to better control light), so your structures can be more resistant naturally, and there is at least a reasonable chance that, in a disaster, these things could be functioning lifelines, helping avoid localized starvation, which is now a concern in areas like Puerto Rico.
One other area where farming is a problem is that that conventional farms tend to employ a high number of illegal aliens. This makes them attractive havens for those who enter the country illegally and allows excessive levels of employee abuse because these employees can’t complain to the police.
As noted above, AeroFarms uses techs, not unskilled labor, and far less of them. Lending itself to robotics and automation, the model directly addresses this problem as well.
Wrapping Up: Making the IoT Work
AeroFarms likely highlights best the kind of potential for the IoT effort that Dell Technologies is trying to roll out. Farming has massive problems in terms of resource usage, pollution, labor and risk. By using current generation IoT technology, AeroFarms has massively addressed each of these areas and created a solution that is far better for the world of tomorrow, with increasing weather risks and higher uses of robotics. I’m kind of wondering how long before someone who is tech forward like Amazon builds this right into a grocery store.
And, from a personal perspective, this could make farming fun. My younger self would have loved to work for AeroFarms and I’m sure I wouldn’t miss the bugs, heat and horse poop.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+