Over this past winter break, I found myself somehow in the most rural of places in Victoria, Australia picking blueberries when I heard something happening out in the open fields. I went over to explore what was happening. All I saw were two tractors rolling up hay bales. Like you are also probably thinking, this seems all relatively unimpressive, except watching these two middle aged men work together to roll and wrap up baleage aka haylage (which weren’t even regular hay bales like I thought they were) had me in a trance. There was so much technology and engineering at work. The first guy drove a tractor with a bale roller in tow, collecting cut hay and eventually dumping out a rolled up bale from the back. The other driver would then drive over with what I believe is called a table wrapper. This machine picks up the bale, and wraps it with some strong plastic. It all sounds simple but just watching the machines work makes the engineering so much more impressive and intriguing. The table wrapper picks up the bale with what can be best described as a huge two pronged forklift, and places it on a rotating platform that spins the bale into the wrapping. Once it is wrapped, the bale is released onto an angled ramp where it rolls onto its flat side. My description doesn’t really capture it super well so here’s a video of a machine that does essentially the same thing.
All of this engineering is just to wrap baleage! What may be most staggering is that this specific model of table wrapper is only one of many models. The notion that wrapping hay bales is lucrative enough to the point where companies create many models to do this one task, utilizing very different engineering, is mind boggling. Perhaps the Big Bertha of these models is a John Deere LW1266 Inline Bale Wrapper. It’s starting price: a nice cool $40k. This baby wraps 120 bales an hour in what looks like a giant caterpillar.
How could such a seemingly simple task require a tool that costs $40k+? IT JUST WRAPS HAY! In a time where technology is highlighted by companies appealing to personal use, like the big four of tech: Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, there also just so happens to be a $2.4 trillion dollar global agriculture industry. The US only has 1.4% of its GDP dedicated to agriculture because of its first world status, but still has about 2 million farms. These farms are driven by and are reliant on machinery and technology from companies like John Deere.
John Deere is the largest agriculture heavy equipment producer in the US. While John Deere is generally recognized as a tractor company, they are making it their mission to show that they are first and foremost a technology company. Perhaps the most impressive parts of their tractors are the software and hardware integrated within the vehicles. Touchscreens, sensors, 3d modeling, AI, and camera technology are all in these big green machines. Its GPS systems are accurate to within 2.3 cm. Our phones are only accurate up to 3 meters. They even develop autonomous tractors that are uncannily precise. These technologies aren’t just appendages to core tractor function; core tractor functionality is dependent on these technologies. From the engine to the sensors, everything is reliant on computers and digital tech.
However, John Deere hasn’t been able to do this without controversy. John Deere has a hotly contested practice of utilizing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other policies to prevent users from being able to repair the tractor software themselves. This is extremely problematic for many reasons. The first is that it creates a monopoly for John Deere when it comes to repairing vehicle software as no one else can repair them or even has access to their API’s. Beyond being monopolistic, it creates deep logistical and financial problems for farmers. For example, if a farmer has a 2 month harvest season and their tractor can’t function properly due to software issues, they first have to get their tractor to a John Deere dealership. This is not as simple as taking your car to the shop. Farms (surprise surprise) are inherently in rural areas which means transportation distances can be long. It can cost over a $1000 to just get it onto a truck for transport. By the time the truck is repaired and brought back, the farmer could have missed a key chunk of their harvest season over a relatively minor issue in software on top of paying massive repair expenses. This controversy has brought up a lot of discussion regarding “right to repair,” and on a legislative level could influence the much bigger tech companies. This video by Motherboard does a great job of explaining the problem.
Regardless of the controversy, John Deere will continue to push forward with its mission to highlight technology and its place in farming. Recently John Deere launched the Startup Collaborator program with the goal of deepening interaction with startups that have technology that could help farmers. In this program, startups can test their technologies with John Deere’s established infrastructure and existing customers. Companies that are already a part of the program include Bear Flag Robotics, who develop autonomous technology for tractors; Hello Tractor, who developed an application to manage tractors for small farmers; and Taranis, who developed an automated field scouting service. At CES 2019 (a large gathering to showcase innovative technologies), John Deere made it a concerted effort to showcase the technological work that they’ve done and the bright future for agriculture technology with 5G not being too far away.
Personally, I think the most intriguing aspect of technology in agriculture is how it slides under the radar. Our emphasis on technology often focuses on companies headquartered in metropolitan areas, but there is also very impactful technology being developed in areas like the midwest plains of the US as well. Furthermore, companies that we may not have previously thought of as technology companies should be seen as such. As Gary Shapiro, CEO of the organization that organizes CES stated, “Every company today is a technology company.” On one sunny day thousands of miles away from home, I was pleasantly reminded of that reality.