November 26th, 2020
There’s certainly no denying it now; it ain’t summer! Very little will happen in the fields this week. Our remaining crew are mainly packing and filling orders. They are all working inside out of the elements except for myself, my son, James, and Matt Kaiser who is 21 and has worked for us on and off since his early teens. The three of us are busy getting equipment cleaned up, put away and at the same time cataloguing improvements, upgrades and repairs we need to make before the next season. The list is always longer than the downtime we have between December and March. Then busier the summer, the more chaotic it gets and the more organizing we are left with at this time of year (because we couldn’t keep up with it during the growing season). As you can imagine, after the season we have had the job is bigger than usual.
I have also started to delve into my full time office job mostly courtesy of government bureaucracy. It’s nice to be in out of the weather but it would be nice if the various levels of government would pay me for my time. Too much of my real job seems like a non-profit venture….it would be nice to last least get paid for this ever-increasing office workload. OK…… that’s my whine for the week….let’s get on to more interesting things.
Late in 2018, after searching the planet for ways to reduce the cost (read hand labour) of pulling weeds I stumbled upon a Nova Scotia startup company call Nexus Robotics headed up by Teric Greenan and his young and extremely tech savvy team. Teric had tried his hand at market gardening near New Germany and found that without herbicides the most tedious, time consuming and costly part of vegetable farming is weed control. This experience drove him to quit farming and strike up venture to try to develop the world’s first weed pulling robot. I immediately made contact and set up a visit of their headquarters in Bayer’s Lake.
I wanted in. I wanted to help in any way we could and I let Teric know that. At that tine Nexus was already considering relocating to Ontario because they couldn’t find the support and infrastructure here to make a go of it. That didn’t sit well with me. I encouraged Teric to try his best to stay here. I contacted as many people as I could think of who could improve his situation and he did the same. The result; nexus stayed in Nova Scotia for the summer of 2019 and set up shop right on our farm. It was one of the neatest experiences I have ever had in farming. There were between six and eight engineers and computer programmers working out of our farm shop from the first of May until the end of September. Just by chance, we ended up pouring some concrete next to the farm shop that summer and I got all of the team to scratch their names into the fresh concrete. Hopefully someday these robots will be commonplace and I’ll be able to point to that slab of concrete and say I was part of the process at the very beginning.
For those of you who are honest and admit to watching television on occasion; imagine the scenes where they have some crazy brilliant computer whiz typing some crazy programming language with four screens of numbers continuously rolling by. That was the scene as Raj, the lead programmer, worked away every day in our woodshop turned office. The team would do tests and collect data each day, email it off to be digested overnight in China by contract programmers there and then incorporate the new info into the robot’s computer learning enabled system before running a new round of tests. I would so love to show this to either of my grandfathers (both lifetime farmers). This isn’t quite like throwing a few hands full of grain to the chickens and moving a few bales of hay around that get’s passed of as farming, even today, in many a movie.
In very basic terms the robot has multiple arms similar to what are used in a 3-D printer that are controlled by visual computer recognition of plants. The robot has to be able to effectively distinguish between crop and weeds and reach down into the row of crop plants and pull only the weeds with a pincer type of “hand”. We take this for granted when we pull weeds on the farm but to teach a computer how to do it right requires a lot of programming and careful thought. The latest greatest thing in the computer world is computer learning and this robot has it. The premise is to teach it the basics on what each weed or crop plant looks like but allow it to build on that. Foe example: If it spies a weed that fits the initial description that has been programmed into it but that weed has one leaf that has turned red due to stress it still recognizes the weed but makes a “mental note” that "Hey, this weed sometimes has red leaves”. If, in the future, it comes across a weed of that species that is, because of some sort of stress, completely red it can still identify it as a weed and pull it out. The more time it spends in the field the more “experienced” and "smarter" it gets. That’s more than I can say for some of my employees on some days! In defence of humans; the robot doesn’t get bored, have other issues on it’s mind, or have to worry about whether the job pays enough to live off.
I should point out that there are many version of weed control robots being developed but the Nexus robot is different. It is the only one that can single out, and then reach down and pull a single weed out of a crop row. That’s the “holy grail” of organic agriculture! All other robots either employ directed herbicide, lasers to burn weeds or a mechanical hoe system. This machine represents a paradigm shift that will eventually completely change the face and possibilities of ecologically sound agriculture.
So the plan for summer 2021, at this point, is to haves the first (or one of the first) field prototype in the fields at Elmridge Farm and doing the job that so many of us despise. Hopefully that, in turn, will reduce our $200k per year weeding expense……yes $200,000! Less expense means more profitability which translates to stability that allows us to stay in business, grow food in an ecologically sound way, help to maintain some sort of food security in this province, and improve the local economy.
I’ll keep you posted as things develop.
Keep eating your veggies.