July 2016 Feature Story: Agbotics

Automated Agriculture

Left, Cody Morse, left, automatics engineer, and Sean Hanson, head grower, are the men behind the machine at Agbotic.  Opposite page, a robotic tiller tills soil between rows of leaf lettuce. The metal spades make contact with soil to dislodge weeds. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

Left, Cody Morse, left, automatics engineer, and Sean Hanson, head grower, are the men behind the machine at Agbotic. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

Agbotic digs new ground for organic farming

By Marcus Wolf, NNY Business

John P. Gaus’s vision for his automated and organic farming company, Agbotic Inc., took one of its first major steps with a 1,200-square-foot prototype greenhouse built in 2014.
It was equipped with a robot that tilled the soil, watered and harvested the crops and collected data on crop growth. With continuous development in both technology and marketing strategies, Mr. Gaus realized his goal of building Agbotic’s first full-scale greenhouse in March.

The full-scale greenhouse is 15,000 square feet and has 12 raised beds, each one 37 inches wide. A few examples of its technology include environmental controls and a high thermal energy screen to retain heat and light. Mr. Gaus said that the greenhouse can produce about 10,000 pounds of greens, herbs and roots per month.

“We can plant anything that can grow in a bed,” he said.

The tool that provides most of Agbotic’s labor is the robotic gantry, which has been further developed since its initial implementation in the prototype greenhouse.

The gantry, which was developed by Mr. Gaus and Cody B. Morse, an automatics engineer from Mannsville, is a self-navigating device that spans the width of the greenhouse. Mr. Gaus said that different tools are attached to the gantry so it can maintain and harvest the crops. These tools include bed roll formers, micro tillers, band saw harvesters and sprayers.

Mr. Gaus will continue to enhance the robot’s precision in order to use greenhouse space to its fullest potential, as well work toward implementing tools that could allow it to maintain vine crops.

“We think we’ve been pretty good at not only developing technology that works, but technology for which there is a demand,” Mr. Gaus said. “We’ve been lucky enough to succeed so far in the early technology and marketing development.”

The greenhouse’s automated technology allows it not only to grow and maintain crops, but also to collect and store information on each crop.

Mr. Gaus said he wants to provide an extensive degree of traceability on his crops to meet customer demands.

A robotic tiller tills soil between rows of leaf lettuce. The metal spades make contact with soil to dislodge weeds. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business

A robotic tiller tills soil between rows of leaf lettuce. The metal spades make contact with soil to dislodge weeds. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business

Information such as what farm, greenhouse and row each crop came from, the day each crop was planted, GPS tracking and environmental data that affect crop growth is collected and made available for wholesale food buyers. Mr. Gaus intends to make that information available for individual customers within the year.

“Every package of food that leaves the farm can take its data with it,” he said. “That allows for a very high degree of traceability.”

Automated technology is the driving force in maintaining Agbotic’s organic greens and roots, but quality produce cannot grow without a solid foundation. Mr. Gaus’s choice for that foundation is healthy soil that is rich in organic matter.

Three main substances compose the greenhouse soil: azomite, which is volcanic ash found in ancient sea beds, humate, a mined substance that adds more carbon to the soil, and sea kelp, which is full of organic matter to aid healthy growth. The combination of these substances is meant help crops break down micronutrients and develop more microorganisms to strengthen their immunity, protecting them from pests and allowing the company to keep its soil chemical free.

“We are trying not to use any chemicals, even ones that are organic certified,” Mr. Gaus said. “We’ve been studying various models around the world, and we made sure that we were the most advanced soil model in the world,” Mr. Gaus said

While Agbotic has already developed a customer base in the north country, Mr. Gaus envisions a future for his company that expands throughout the Northeast.

Agbotic has delivered to multiple local restaurants, including Pete’s Tattoria in Watertown. The firm has also undergone a few trial deliveries to large premium food buyers in Manhattan, one of the company’s initial goals. Mr. Gaus has been working with some of the largest companies in the food market.

“Our model is to deliver completely chemical-free food on the day of harvest,” Mr. Gaus said.

Kevin L. Richardson, the incubation manager for the North Country Innovation Hot Spot at Clarkson University, Potsdam, has helped the company to establish connections with its clientele and meet their delivery goals. He said that current customers are satisfied with Agbotic’s service and are impressed with their fresh food on the day of harvest model.

“Agbotic’s concept of trying to fill a void within the supply chain is a great approach,” Mr. Richardson said.

Funding sources such as a $99,650 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise and $1 million from the North Country Regional Economic Development Council have helped the company develop and improve its technology, facilitate trial and error testing and expand its marketing research.

Mr. Gaus said he sees a value in this type of industry in the north country, and in order to meet his delivery goals and achieve this potential, he plans to build more greenhouses throughout the region.

Part his business model is to develop complexes that include four greenhouses and a central building to house the technology to regulate and store data on them throughout Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. The central building will include controls for the heating and cooling, a workshop for further development, infrastructure control and maintenance.

“Our focus is to build as many as we can in the north country,” he said. “So this could potentially be a very large industry in upstate.”

Marcus Wolf is a Johnson Newspapers staff writer. Contact him at mwolf@wdt.net or 661-2371.