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Ag robotics in reality

Where does ag robotics fit on a modern farm?

February 20, 2024  By Alex Barnard

The DOT robot was one of the first widely discussed autonomous farm platforms. Since its unveiling in 2018, several other autonomous agricultural robots have been tested by Haggerty AgRobotics.

With all of the technology implemented in modern agriculture, automation and robotics is likely the next logical leap – but it can feel like an exceptionally large one for many. Between the economic, technological, and reliability considerations, there’s the added difficulty of knowing which machine might work best for your operation, and whether it can do what it’s supposed to. Chuck Baresich, general manager of Haggerty Creek Ltd. and president of Haggerty AgRobotics in Bothwell, Ont., has been working to figure out where ag robots fit for several years. Top Crop Manager eastern editor Alex Barnard spoke with Baresich about ag robotics adoption, reframing return on investment, and questions he’s often asked about ag robotics by farmers.

How did Haggery AgRobotics get started?
My brother and I are farmers in the area, and we started Haggerty Creek, the agronomy business, back in 2001. Almost immediately after starting the business – by 2004 – we were involved with precision agriculture.

When I got our first robot in 2020, with the price tag and the dollars involved, we thought it might be a distraction from our core business. We started Haggerty AgRobotics so that we could separate the automation piece from the agronomy side. We think it’s going to be big enough to deserve its own entity.


In 2021, we started doing the testing of the weeding robots. We didn’t really know – we still might not know what we’re doing, but back in 2021 we really didn’t know what we were doing. Then in 2022, with the help of OMAFRA and our AgRobotics Working Group and researchers, we started to set some priorities as to where these robots actually fit. How do we fit them into the Ontario ecosystem? And then in 2023, we made a conscious effort to deploy the majority of these robots commercially. Some of them were still placed in trials, but a lot of them were leased out to commercial farms. Figuring out where they fit is one of the big challenges.

It’s all very futuristic and fascinating, but I imagine making it fit in a real farm system
requires some negotiation.
Farmers are very smart people. Whether it’s corn or tomatoes, or onions or carrots or tobacco or any of these crops – the farmers are very good at what they do [growing crops], and they have certain cultural practices because they work. So, if an engineer who builds a robot that doesn’t fit within a traditional system – they might have the Cadillac system, the perfect machine, but the farmer says, “What I’m doing is working pretty good, I don’t want to upset that applecart. So, I you need to really show me an advantage to changing my system.” 

What’s happening is there are some other unforeseen challenges driving the adoption. A lot of it relates to weed control: the weed control options we have are becoming more and more limited, chemicals are being taken off the market or are no longer effective. On top of that, labor is more costly and harder to get. A farm operation can no longer assume that it will be able to find a 50-person weeding crew to come in and do a rescue treatment. The value of the crop is so high that it makes this new technology more attractive. 

The farmers are looking at what they’re doing today and saying, “I might have two or three more years of doing it this way, but that is coming to an end. And I need to find an alternative solution.” 

One issue that farmers have brought up is companies creating an ag robot as a solution that doesn’t necessarily have a problem.
For an engineer or designer or developer who has an idea – sometimes they don’t understand the time crunch the farmer is under. They don’t understand the fact that if the machine doesn’t work, the farmer doesn’t have tomorrow to make it work. Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding from the engineering side as to what the pressures are and what kind of reliability is required. 

The other thing is that it’s not always just a new idea that’s required. Sometimes what the farmers are doing or the method they’re using isn’t wrong, but maybe the way they’re deploying that method can be improved or tweaked. Some interesting stuff was done this year with onions: the robotic technology might open up a different method of planting the onions that will allow for less chemical while maintaining the yield. That’s really one of the sweet spots we’re trying to go over, which will encourage the adoption piece. One of the things that isn’t going to [encourage adoption] is saying to the farmer, “You’re going to keep doing everything you’re doing exactly how it is today, but we’re going to take your staff away and eliminate all your employees.” That’s going to fail immediately.

What’s a common question you hear from growers?
One question I get asked is, “Is there a return, am I going to make any money on this machine?” The answer to that is, in some cases, yes. But you have to figure out, when you say a return on investment, what returns are you looking for? If you’re trying to compare strictly dollars of labor to dollars of robot – maybe, maybe not. 

Going back to precision agriculture: the return on investment on an autosteer system in a tractor is very, very hard to measure, because technically a person can drive straight. I would argue that that return on investment is almost zero if you just measured dollars, but every tractor has one now. People have accepted that the ancillary benefits of being less tired, being more precise and such add value in a way that you can’t measure. And robotics is going to be very similar to that. 


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