Robots are changing the future of farming

A robot named Sam rules over this atypical Ohio farm.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

It's a cloudy day in early October and I'm circling my rented Jeep Wrangler around a maze of industrial buildings in Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton is a small city 30 miles north of Cincinnati with a population of just over 62,000 people. Like much of Ohio, farming is important here.

I'm on my way to a farm called 80 Acres, but it isn't the sprawling midwestern wheat field you're picturing in your mind. This tech-centric farm is indoors, housed entirely in a nondescript 10,000-square-foot warehouse. 

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You can't tell from the outside, but this is a bustling produce farm that has tested over 100 varieties of leafy greens.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

Food and agriculture are the top contributors to Ohio's economy. There are about 78,000 farms in Ohio, putting it near the top of every list ranking US states by number of farms. Its biggest crops are soybeans, corn and wheat.

But US farming is in trouble. There are roughly 2 million farms in the country spread across 900 million acres and they earned a total of $389 billion in sales in 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, released in April 2019. All three of those numbers are lower than they were five years ago. There are fewer farms, there's less land dedicated to agriculture and the remaining farms are making less money.

There are a lot of reasons for these declines, from dropping commodity prices, to climate change and a trade war with China. There's also a growing trend of larger farms making the majority of the profits. Less than four percent of US farms made more than two thirds of agriculture sales in 2017.

80 Acres Farms doesn't just want to make fresh, local produce for Cincinnati and neighboring areas; it wants to completely overhaul the food system in the US. 

"We decided that the [food] industry was really broken and that it had to be fixed from within. Farmers are struggling and they don't want their kids to be in farming," 80 Acres CEO Mike Zelkind explains as we watch a robot named "Sam" expertly maneuver containers of leafy greens around a series of stacked shipping containers inside the Hamilton warehouse. 

I'm here to see how 80 Acres is changing farming for this corner of Ohio -- and how its sister company, Infinite Acres, is selling its sustainable technology to other farms with an ultimate goal of "feeding the world."

A plan to feed the world

Zelkind and Tisha Livingston, the president of 80 Acres and CEO of Infinite Acres, came up with the idea for their farm in 2015. Back then, "controlled-environment agriculture" -- more commonly known as indoor or vertical farming -- was a relatively new industry. Indoor farming is a type of climate-controlled agriculture that typically relies on artificial lights and other technology to grow crops indoors.  

Zelkind has a lot of respect for early indoor farming pioneers, but he says there's one thing they don't have that sets 80 Acres Farms apart: He and Livingston have over 50 years of combined experience in the food industry. 

Zelkind worked for General Mills from 1991-1996. He later transitioned to VP and SVP roles at ConAgra Foods, Bumble Bee Foods and AdvancePierre Foods. He was the CEO of Sager Creek Vegetable Company before he and Livingston co-founded 80 Acres.

Livingston held various roles at Pierre Foods and AdvancePierre Foods from 1995-2014, before becoming a VP and then COO at Sager Creek Vegetable Company. 

The duo witnessed firsthand the systemic problems with the food industry for decades. Zelkind says three things need to happen for any long-lasting, positive change to take place: We need to grow things differently, change the supply chain and distribution channels and merchandise differently. 

For 80 Acres Farms, "growing things differently" translates to indoor farming. 

Indoor farms can grow produce without pesticides, year-round. That immediately negates concerns about any of the synthetic or natural pesticides used in commercial and organic agricultural production and the inherent seasonality of traditional outdoor farming, as well as weather-related issues due to climate change such as droughts and floods. 

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Mike Zelkind and his business partner, Tisha Livingston, stand in front of Sam the robot inside their Hamilton, Ohio farm.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Even if you grow it differently, you can't stick it on some broken supply chain," Zelkind adds. Tomatoes and strawberries are bred for transportation -- and food in the US travels at least 2,000 miles on average to get from the farm to your grocery store shelf, he explains. 

Tomatoes and strawberries are specifically bred to have thicker skins and they're picked from farms before they're ripe -- just so they will survive the 2,000 journey to your town. When you factor in the travel time, the shelf life of produce is significantly lower than it would've been if it were picked at peak ripeness and sent to a local store. 

80 Acres puts its farms near the stores it serves and currently has six fully operational facilities. There's one in Alabama, one in North Carolina, two in Arkansas and two in Ohio, including the one I'm visiting today. 

The name 80 Acres comes from their other Ohio farm, which is located on a quarter acres of land and grows the equivalent of 80 acres worth of crops.

The Ohio farms supply local grocery stores including Kroger, Whole Foods, Jungle Jim's and Dorothy Lane Market (a Dayton, Ohio-based store that also happens to make the best brownies I've ever tasted). 

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80 Acres has a dedicated produce section in a downtown Cincinnati Kroger.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The final hurdle for 80 Acres is how to merchandise their food, which they package locally in-house. For this, they forget about the tech powering 80 Acres and lean on the taste. "We are sampling in the store aggressively because once you taste it, you know," says Rebecca Haders, vice president of creative and marketing at 80 Acres, who's tagging along with us today. 

Of course, the tech really doesn't matter if the produce doesn't taste good -- but Zelkind, Livingston and Haders are unanimous: You really *can* taste the difference between typical grocery store produce and produce from 80 Acres Farms. 

I bought a carton of their "Fireworks Tomatoes" at a Kroger in downtown Cincinnati and they were right; they were delicious. They tasted better than standard grocery store tomatoes, but on-par with the freshest, most flavorful produce at your local farmers market. 

One drawback is the price. The 9-ounce carton of 80 Acres cherry tomatoes cost me $3.99. Kroger-brand conventional cherry tomatoes come in a 10-ounce carton and cost $2.49; Kroger's Simple-Truth-brand cherry tomatoes cost $2.99 for a 10-ounce carton. Even Whole Foods, a brand known for its higher pricing, sells packaged tomatoes for less than 80 Acres.

While 80 Acres' tomatoes were better, I wouldn't want to spend over $1 more on them each time I went to the store. I asked 80 Acres why budget-conscious customers -- or any customers, really -- should buy their produce when it costs more. Haders tells me the retailer sets the price, not 80 Acres.

"We know, based on consumer feedback, that the customer highly values our consistent flavor, truly pesticide-free, local, just picked-fresh tomatoes.  Pricing is at par today with local, organic, but with efficiencies of scale, we intend to bring prices down without compromising product quality, freshness, or flavor," Haders adds. 

Their focus may be on taste, but the truth is, Zelkind and the rest of the team care deeply about the tech. It's the crucial piece that has enabled 80 Acres Farms to grow so quickly. It's also the key component in solving the challenges associated with overhauling the food industry.

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80 Acres "Fireworks Tomatoes" are described on the packaging as "an explosion of flavor."

Megan Wollerton/CNET

A top secret facility

"This facility is kind of top secret," Zelkind says as we stand in front of ten stacked shipping containers. "Everything in here is proprietary." I'm the first reporter to see it, I learn, and Zelkind, Livingston and Haders talk about the technology here in hushed, excited tones. While other indoor farms rely on tech, 80 Acres says it has taken a more holistic commercial approach with fully-automated robots loading produce for shipping and computer systems to help monitor the crops and manage their lighting schedule.

The team has spent five years on intensive trial and error to build this farm. They've brought in tech from other companies and also experimented by building their own to get as close as they can to an "optimal" indoor farm. Each new farm they build benefits from the things they learned the last time around -- and this facility in Hamilton is their newest and most high-tech farm.

"We're exhilarated and we're scared and we've gotten further than anybody else we know. And we're absolutely nowhere. We know that this won't cut it, and this is yesterday. We're working on tomorrow," Zelkind explains. 

80 Acres' Hamilton farm has 10 shipping containers that measure 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet tall. Each shipping container has between four to six levels and can accommodate roughly 4,000 plants. If every shipping container is filled to capacity, that's 40,000 plants total. This facility focuses on lettuces and other leafy greens.

There's a reason why 80 Acres and other indoor farms focus on these types of crops, explains Erik Runkle, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University. Customers want them year-round, despite seasonal availability -- and leafy greens are typically transported long distances, despite being perishable. Their nutritional content can also decrease during shipping. 

Then the question becomes: How economically viable is indoor farming really? In short, we don't exactly know yet, Runkle tells me. He and colleagues from Michigan State and other universities received a grant from the USDA (the US Department of Agriculture) to study this exact thing, but even after the four-year study, Runkle doesn't expect the answer to be a simple "yes" or "no."

Commercial indoor farming in the US got started about 8-10 years ago, Runkle explains. He estimates that less than 1% of US produce farming comes from indoor farming today. Most of the early companies have gone out of business. Some well-known pioneers, like New Jersey's AeroFarms, are still around. 

"Indoor farming is always going to be much more expensive than anything grown in a field," Runkle adds. He doesn't expect indoor farming to replace traditional farming anytime soon -- or perhaps ever. But he does see it as a potential solution in places where water is a limitation and field irrigation is either unrealistic or impossible. 

Fortunately, some technological advancements have reduced the cost of indoor farming, making at least a little more viable today than it would've been a decade ago. 

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Ten modular "grow zones" are stacked inside their warehouse. During my visit, the team was testing dozens of different varieties of leafy greens. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

LED lights have been one of the most significant technological advancements that made 80 Acres possible. Older lights cost more money, used more energy and made the environment too hot for plants. Now, with LEDs, 80 Acres has customizable, automated lighting systems in place to simulate daylight with different color temperatures. They use less energy, spend less money and the plants are happier too. 

This farm also relies on two robots, Sam and Barney, to handle most of the heavy lifting. The bots load and unload pallets of plants from each shipping container on a set schedule -- or manually, as needed. Other companies still hire people to go up on scissor lifts and move these heavy plant containers, Zelkind explains. 

There are cameras inside each container, too, so the team can check in on their plants whenever they want. And 80 Acres is developing machine learning to identify irregularities -- pests, color deficiencies, variations in plant sizes and much more -- so that growers don't have to watch the plants 24/7. 

When the cameras find an irregularity, it can be shared across the 80 Acres team to more quickly identify the potential issue and work toward a solution. 

"We use all of that [technology] to assist growers, not to replace growers," Zelkind says. The AI tech today isn't anywhere near where it would need to be to take over the job of a grower, but making room for technology has definitely changed how growers interact with plants. 80 Acres even offers its own training classes to teach employees how to use their technologies. 

Controlled-environment agriculture is becoming an increasingly prevalent area of study in agriculture departments at the University of Arizona, Cornell University, University of Nebraska and many other schools. 

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Plant manager Tim Brobbeck is so dedicated to the work, he sometimes sleeps at the Hamilton farm.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Tim Brobbeck started out as a grower at 80 Acres three years ago. Now Brobbeck's the plant manager. Brobbeck says it can be tricky to gauge what's going on with a certain plant when you can't climb up and access it easily. The cameras help, but it can still be difficult sometimes to tell what exactly is happening. This tech learning curve is exactly what Livingston is focused on as the CEO of Infinite Acres. 

To Infinite Acres -- and beyond

Infinite Acres is 80 Acres' tech company. As head of Infinite Acres, Livingston works to make the tech as smart as possible, in order to support the growers and the rest of the team here. But there's another goal that goes way beyond the Hamilton farm or even 80 Acres' five other farms: She wants to take what they've learned about indoor farming tech from 80 Acres and sell it to other farmers all over the world. 

80 Acres is open to selling its technology to other farms and helping them run things or simply selling the tech, training the existing staff to use it and leaving them to it, Livingston explains. They're eager to share what they know about lighting, sensors, vision systems, robots and automation with other farmers -- and there's a big demand for it. 

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These are "R&D" crops, leafy greens they're testing out at the Hamilton farm. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I ask the 80 Acres team what makes them special, how they managed to keep going. "Our pedigree is grit," Zelkind chimes in. Their failures, coupled with their existing knowledge of the food industry and genuine passion for the work keep them going. 

"We say, 'fail fast and cheap with tremendous insights,'" Livingston adds. It's kind of their motto. They've made a lot of mistakes, they readily admit. 

They've killed a lot of crops. They've had so much humidity in grow zones that it literally rained, and killed everything. "We were in the process at one point where we were just continuing to seed knowing that we were gonna kill all of the crops that we had," Zelkind says with a chuckle. 

But they've come this far and they're determined to train a new generation of farmers, just like Tim Brobbeck, to make healthy produce more accessible than ever before. "I love the scalability of [80 Acres] and the idea that we can go out and maybe feed the world someday," says Brobbeck. That sounds pretty good to me.