Startups are aiming to solve big problems for agriculture, including labor and water shortages, climate-driven headaches and declining bee populations, by deploying artificial intelligence, autonomous driving technology and robotics.
f the vast farms of the Midwest are America’s breadbasket, California is its produce department. But the country’s biggest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables is in trouble, threatened by shortages of farm labor and water and rising temperatures due to climate change.
To combat these challenges—if a growing number of startups have their way—California’s fields and orchards will soon be staffed by autonomous flying drones that pluck fruit and nuts from trees, electric self-driving tractors that monitor each row for weeds and crop health and pollinating bees that make their homes on the farm in robotic hives. These futuristic-sounding technologies aren’t decades away —they’re deployed in the field right now.
“That’s the only commercially available electric autonomous vehicle you can buy today,” says Praveen Penmetsa, CEO and cofounder of Monarch, pointing to one of his MK-V tractors as it does test loops through a faux orchard for onlookers at World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, last month. His Livermore, California-based startup, which has raised about $110 million and counts wine scion Carlos Mondavi as a cofounder, started selling its $89,000 self-driving tractors last year, which are outfitted with sensors to monitor crop health.
“Whether it’s labor or water, or even fertilizers and pesticides, those are all resources that are very expensive. With our tractor, with the data we’re collecting, (farmers) can be more efficient with all those resources,” Penmetsa told Forbes. “Instead of one driver sitting on a tractor going up and down a row, that same driver can manage three or four tractors at a time and finish the operation faster.”
The urgency to solve long-term challenges for food production coincides with AI-enabled tech advances — the same underlying tech that has automated factories and wowed millions with its ability to generate fanciful text and images (as well as promises to make robotaxis and self-driving semis a reality in the years ahead). And while venture funding has cooled for many emerging technologies, AG tech remains a money magnet, vacuuming up $10.6 billion from investors in 988 deals last year, according to PitchBook.
California, led by its highly productive San Joaquin Valley farms, last year generated more than $51 billion of revenue from grapes, almonds, peaches, lettuce, carrots and other high-value crops, or 12% of total U.S. agricultural production by value, according to the USDA. That’s far ahead of states synonymous with farming like Iowa and Nebraska. But finding enough people to work the fields grows harder year after year, particularly with the drop in migrant farm labor resulting from stricter border controls. The problem was glaringly apparent at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when ripe crops were left to fallow in the field because there weren’t enough workers to harvest them, triggering shortages of some products at supermarkets.
“Pretty much every year our members have been concerned about not being able to get enough people to do what they need to do or would like to be able to do.”
C. Bryan Little, director of labor affairs, California Farm Bureau Federation
“The lack of products on grocery store shelves was not because farmers stopped growing crops and raising livestock to provide a food source for the country,” the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a recent blog. “It was because every step of the supply chain lacked the labor needed to keep up with the demand.”
The problem is acute for California growers, who produce crops that are more labor-intense to harvest than the vast wheat and corn fields of the Midwest. “Pretty much every year our members have been concerned about not being able to get enough people to do what they need to do or would like to be able to do,” said C. Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. That’s also made them receptive to labor-saving technology, like the use of machines that shake almond and pistachio trees starting about 20 years ago.
“California is the world’s primary producer of almonds now, and it used to be if you’re growing almonds you needed a crew of like 30 people with long sticks and bags to walk through the orchard and knock the almonds off the trees and then pick them up off the ground now,” Little said. “Now two or three people can do the work of 30.”
Monarch’s tractor, which has been working in Mondavi-owned vineyards since 2020, costs about twice as much as a similar-size diesel tractor. Penmetsa says savings on fuel and labor mean it pays for itself in about two years—and in California, it even qualifies for incentives for non-polluting ag equipment of as much as 80%. Its cameras and software allow for precise watering and use of fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in further cost savings for growers, he said.
Backed by $110 million in funding from farm equipment maker CNH Industrial and VCs, including Trimble Ventures, At One Ventures, Tri-Valley Ventures and Western Technology Investment, the company is also moving fast to get them into widespread use. It’s licensed the technology to CNH and has a deal with Foxconn to rapidly boost production of MK-Vs at its Lordstown, Ohio, plant.
While Monarch and other makers of robotic tractors, including industry heavyweight John Deere, are focused on crop maintenance and monitoring, Tevel Aerobotics Technologies is using autonomous technology to help with the harvest. The Israeli startup, which recently opened U.S. operations in the San Joaquin Valley, offers small flying, autonomous robots equipped with camera vision and algorithms to identify ripe fruit, pick it with a high-suction arm and gently deposit it into a conveyor.
In a demonstration at the expo, eight of the company’s “Alphabots” are tethered to the automated conveyor, picking and depositing one piece of fruit (including apples, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines) every 2.5 seconds. The speed isn’t remarkable, but the system is designed to be precise and work round the clock, in light or darkness, something humans can’t do.
“Especially in California, with the labor laws, you can’t have pickers work more than eight hours a day,” said Ittai Marom, general manager of Tevel’s U.S. operations, as he watched the buzzy bots plucking apples that were attached with magnets to faux trees under a tent at the expo. “Working 24/7 is a game-changer to the entire chain.”
The first unit went into operation last year at HMC Farms, a large-scale fruit grower in Kingsburg, California, and Tevel’s flying harvesters are also headed for orchards in Italy and Washington. The cost of the unit, which is still being modified, will be “less than $200,000,” Marom said.
It’s also not intended to replace human labor but “fills in when a grower doesn’t have enough workers on a certain day or when two different plots are ripe for picking, and he doesn’t have enough people working at night or working overtime,” he said.
human labor isn’t the only shortage for farmers. The dwindling bee population essential for pollination is becoming an even more fundamental crisis, especially for California’s fruit and nut farms. The problem of colony collapse disorder, where worker bees abandon their hive and queen, is linked to harm from pesticides, loss of habitat, threats from other species and poor nutrition, according to the U.S. EPA.
“We’re losing the bees on the planet, about 35% of the bee colonies every year,” said Saar Safra, CEO and cofounder of Beewise, which has raised $120 million to build robotic hives that grow bees in a safe, climate-controlled environment. “Considering the fact that bees pollinate 75% of all the fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts on the planet, losing 35% a year puts us in a bind.”
His startup, with operations split between Oakland and Oshrat, Israel, has so far deployed 1,000 of its robotic hives, powered by integrated solar panels. The metallic boxes, containing 10 individual bee colonies (which can each have up to 100,000 bees), are equipped with cameras and AI-enabled software to monitor their needs and health and precision robotics to provide food, water and eliminate pests that threaten the bees.
“Basically it does 97% of what a beekeeper would do in the field for the bees the robot does automatically,” Safra said. “We put these in the field and the bees do their thing. They pollinate, collect pollen, they produce honey. And when they come back home, we make sure they don’t collapse. It’s not too warm. It’s not too cold. It’s a five-star hotel for bees.”
In fact, the company estimates that it’s reduced the annual colony collapse rate to just 8% from that 35% average.
Beewise’s robot hives are rented out to growers during pollination season for specific crops, and rotated to other farms as growing seasons progress. Safra declined to discuss financials but plans to expand production to 10,000 hives annually from 1,000 a year currently and sees potential to create a “multibillion-dollar business.”
“The bees are strategic for us. If we continue losing bees at a 35% rate in 20 years we’ll buy a tomato for $100 and eat it for Friday dinner and all celebrate around that tomato. That’s where we’re headed.”