The electrifying tractor of the future
If you take land out of the equation, there are only three operating-expense buckets where farmers can reasonably cut costs: equipment, seeds and chemicals, Kraig Schulz, founder of Autonomous Tractor Corp, says.
Publicly traded commodities are a “price taker, not a price maker,” he adds, and for most farmers the cost to develop a bushel of corn costs more than what they’ll be paid for it.
So of the three, Schulz believes the best bet for cost savings is equipment.
Schulz, who taught Africans farming techniques in the Peace Corp for four years before turning his knowhow into a 20-year career as a consultant, founded Autonomous Tractor Corporation to help level the farming field. The start-up is based in St. Michael, Minnesota.
Making farm equipment like this electric sprayer dramatically reduces fuel costs.
Allow one year of lag time, he says, and a pattern begins to emerge. “If the price of corn goes up, so does the cost of equipment the next year,” he says. “It’s (farming) a tough business.”
He set a goal to cut equipment costs for farmers by half, and began looking at technology that would accomplish that. And clearly, “the world of mobility is going electric,” he says. But the same Tesla-style solutions that work for commuter cars, didn’t translate well to off-road vehicles that need to run continually for an entire day and part of the night at max effort. Adding batteries wasn’t the answer because it would take at least 15 Tesla battery packs to power a tractor, which would cost more and weigh more than the tractor. “There was no technology out there for a tractor,” he says. So Schulz and his stepfather, who is the inventor/engineer behind the project, took it upon themselves to develop it.
Their first product is a kit for a self-propelled sprayer, which Schulz says is the most used piece of equipment on the farm. It has an electric drive system that the dealer can install when the sprayer is in for routine maintenance repair.
Adoption has been slow in one sense, but not because farmers are Luddites — “People mistake farmers for not being interested in technology,” he says—but because they’re cautious. “I think every farmer comes from Missouri [the Show-me State],” he quips.
“The stuff we came up with is truly amazing,” he adds. The engine for the sprayer, for instance, is 40 percent more efficient, which is a 40 percent savings on fuel. To do the math: If a farmer uses a piece of equipment 1,000 hours a year, and it uses 25 gallons of fuel an hour at $2 a gallon, that’s 25,000 gallons a year at $50,000. A 40 percent savings equals $20,000 a year. Now multiply that by more than one piece of equipment.
The company is still in its infancy. So far they’ve sold every unit they’ve produced. “Our issue isn’t sales, it’s making them,” Schulz says.
Equipment savings is just the beginning. Schulz envisions a world where the farmers are not only paid what they’re worth, but have technology as the extra field hand.