Companies want to use robotics and AI to revolutionize farming, but first, they have to prove there’s a market for what they’re growing.
Robot farming startup Iron Ox has taken the first step in doing so, announcing today that it’s selling robot-reared leafy greens in a single location in California. The firm, which launched last October, is offering three varieties of greens at the San Carlos branch of Bianchini’s Market, a family-owned grocery store that specializes in local and organic produce.
Iron Ox is one of a number of companies trying to automate the human-intensive work of agriculture. It uses a combination of robotic picking arms, hydroponic vats, and self-driving porters to grow vegetables. But despite its repeated claims that its farming is “autonomous,” humans are still needed for a lot of the work. Laborers plant seedlings and package plants when they’re ready to eat: robots just tend them while they’re growing.
Still, news that the company has started selling its produce is promising, and it neatly shows the advantages and disadvantages of this sort of semi-automated agriculture.
One benefit is that robot farms can be located nearer to customers because of their smaller physical footprint. Iron Ox says the greens it’s producing for Bianchini’s travel just 0.6 miles to get there, which is half the distance traveled by a typical head of lettuce. This means lower transportation costs and fewer food miles, a big factor when it comes to the environmental impact of what you put on your plate.
But the scale of Iron Ox’s operation is limited. It’s selling just three varieties of leafy greens and delivering them to Bianchini’s just once a week. The prices aren’t exorbitant, but they are on the expensive side. A two-ounce box of red-veined sorrel will go for $2.49, a two-ounce box of Genevieve basil will cost $2.99, and four heads of baby lettuce will be $4.99.
That’s competitive next to Whole Foods, where four heads of “artisanal” lettuce cost $3.24, but pricey compared to Walmart, which sells an 11-ounce box of greens for less than $5.
Experts we spoke to about Iron Ox last year said pretty much the same: robot farming might just be a niche. Humans are still cheaper than robots, and so they are used for the vast majority of farming. Iron Ox can market its produce as fresh, organic, and with fewer food miles, but this makes it more of a boutique product than a mainstream alternative.
Still, it’s just the start for Iron Ox and the new wave of automated farming startups. And if the market they’re trying to create starts to grow, who knows what fruit it will bear.