July 22nd, 2021
So let’s talk about the future.
I am very conscious of shifts in the food business climate. Historically it’s always been, lowest price is the law. That worked OK because the food system, aside from some imported fruit and speciality products, was nowhere near global. Local production was always the mainstay of one's diet. Every year we reach a new level of globalization with the love of our dollars further cementing the lowest price necessitating cost reduction as the main driver of change. The only real factor outside of that is government intervention in the form of socially driven regulations. Because it’s still an open, free market, the value based government regulations have completely warped the playing field so there is really no such thing as level anymore. The social values that are translated into regulations are very often 100% virtuous and I, for one, agree with much of what they represent.
As you’ve heard me say many times; that’s a cost that should be borne by the entire society but instead regulators only do half their job. They make the regulation, but they completely walk away from the responsibility of paying the price. In this case, it backloads the vast bulk of the cost and responsibility on the farmers. (and it, by no means, stops at agriculture) We are forced to rationalize a way through it to survive. The result is that many crops will have to be given up on and imported from where they can be produced most cheaply. We, at Elmridge, have had to drop a dozen or so crops in the last couple of years for that very reason. For example; at Elmridge we’ve stopped growing bulb onions because we can’t get yields consistently high enough to cover costs. Onions, in my opinion, are the wimps of the veggie world. They require a lot of chemical intervention to stay healthy. We are surrounded by hundreds of acres of conventionally grown onions so it’s like a holiday Mecca when the hoards of insects and diseases discover our poorly protected, naturally grown onions.
The other very good example of the implications of irresponsible regulation (in this case the rapid increase in minimum wage that makes weeding prohibitively expensive) is the fact that we have had to resort to using herbicide on our wholesale carrots (only wholesale! Markets and online carrots are still spray-free.) to reduce cost until we can have a proper robot replacing the herbicide (coming next week!). I am still cautiously optimistic that we will be able to drop the herbicide again next year and have the robot fill the gap. So in defence of farmers who use pesticides; think about the economic repercussions of a single 10 litre jug of herbicide. It will likely replace about $50,000 worth of labour for a price tag of just a few hundred dollars. If the bank is nipping at your heels what do you think you’d do?
So how is this the future?
While I will work tirelessly to try to sway politics to favour more local food production I am painfully aware that the social and political needle is extremely hard to move. So I must keep my head up and eyes and ears open to what is happening all over the world and try to be ready for what might happen next. Europe is a good indication of what might be coming our way in Canada as they seem to always be a number of years ahead of us with change. I’m happy to have them as a warning system of what might come to be. There have been multiple pesticides banned in Europe in the last decade at the demand of the voting public. The result is that the past, present and future of too many farm families have been completely lost. Not a fair system!!
So knowing that labour costs to pull weeds are rising much more quickly than the price of food I began to think of ways to deal with it already more than five years ago. I scoured the internet and the globe as we travelled (I am so happy that not being able to take time off in the summer has opened the door to winter travel in the southern hemisphere). There were many high tech weed control gadgets and robots out there but none of them could come near what human hand-eye coordination can do without the use of herbicide. I somehow didn’t trip over Nexus Robotics early on in my search (they were a very new company). Not until the fall of 2018.
They had just won the top prize in a high tech competition in the States and I immediately sent an email off to their front man, Teric Greenan. The wheels were in motion.
He got back to me quite quickly and in December I paid them a visit in Bayers Lake. The take home for me was that we had an amazing start up in its early stages and they had already come to the conclusion that they would have to relocate to Ontario for lack of support here in Nova Scotia. Let me tell you, that did not sit well with me and I took every opportunity to bring it to the attention of everyone I could think of who might have the political drag or business network to help change that. Somehow, through the work of the Nexus team and various people in the agricultural industry we managed to turn the tide and the decision was made to stay in Nova Scotia for the summer of 2019. Even better, they wanted to set up on our farm!
We closed in and lightly renovated an open shed on the farm. It wasn’t fancy but there were no complaints. The team, consisting of 5-6 Guys and one young lady, moved in and went to work. We have a pretty able farm shop so they had full access to that and any tools we have. It’ll likely be the only time I’ll have a team of leading edge techno wizards operating out of our garage. Made for an interesting summer for sure.
I was particularly impressed by Jad. He is the lead programmer. We’ve all seen the fictional super programmers on the big and small screen. Multiple keyboards, multiple screens, an endless procession of numbers spinning by too fast to read. I thought it was purely fictional. It’s not! Jad had at least four screens going all day each day as he and his team solved unsolvable problems.
Almost every day there would be hardware and software alterations and the robot (R2 WEED2 at this point.....I think they have changed the name....they should have kept it) would be put through yet another battery of tests to gather more data. The data would be sent to China in the evening, get worked on while we slept and returned in a much more useable form in the morning.....pretty cool.
I’m an inventor so I know how product development goes. You come up with the perfect solution to the problem. In your mind there’s no way it wouldn’t work. You try it out and it either doesn’t work at all, not the way you expected, or causes another problem of it’s own. Take two; alter it a bit. There! That’s gotta do it!.......or not......Take three,.....take four.....you know where I’m going. Inventing is certainly not for quitters or the faint of heart. To add to it, the Nexus team is trying to do something that no one has ever done. When you are that close to the leading edge you can’t even be sure the problem will ever get sorted. It takes a lot of faith and willpower.
Well the wizards persevered and persevered. Horticulture NS had set a crop field day at Elmridge for early September. The robot was to be the star attraction. Months to go turned to weeks and then days. They were very close to having the software ready to take its first look at a real crop situation, identify a weed and pull it out of a crop row without damaging the crop. On the morning of the field day they were out early scrambling to be completely ready. Of course everything that could give trouble did but they did it. Pulled a few weeds for everyone to see.
We take for granted how amazing it is that we can just reach down and instantly decide which plant is a weed or crop plant and pull the weed. To programme that into a computer is monumental. And it’s the future.
Soon robots will be a real part of our crew. It’ll hopefully allow us to continue to be profitable growing in a way that is better for both us and the environment.
Welcome to the future!
Keep eating your veggies! Greg