For FarmWise’s Cofounders, Opportunity Was In The Weeds
Before the sun comes up over the rows of salad greens and cauliflower and other vegetables that blanket California’s farms, operators who have been trained to manage the hulking orange machines known Titan FT-35s load them up from the Salinas hub of Farmwise—a startup that offers robotic weeding as a service—and transport them via tractor-trailer to farms in California and Arizona.
Rented at a per-acre cost, the geo-fenced robots drive along planted rows, capturing images of crops that get uploaded and run through a model trained to classify each image. Weeds get the chop. Vegetables remain. The more time a robot spends at a given farm, the better the AI gets, and so does the weeding. To date, FarmWise’s robots have imaged about 200 million individual crops and partnered with about a dozen of the largest vegetable farms in the U.S.
Cofounders Sébastien Boyer and Thomas Palomares launched Farmwise in 2016 to tackle two major pain points for the farming industry: the increasingly unpopular use of pesticides, and persistent labor shortage. Robots, they believe, can solve this problem, especially for high-value crops–which tend to be labor intensive and expensive to produce—like the leafy greens for which the Salinas Valley (nicknamed “America’s Salad Bowl”) is known. Rather than using chemicals or changing to crops, like tree nuts, that are easier to grow, farms can hire FarmWise; when the robots are dispatched, they tend to eradicate 95% of weeds, Boyer says, allowing farms to grow the crops they want to grow, and to do so sustainably. No chemicals, no problem.
A return company on the Forbes AI 50 list for 2021, FarmWise raised a $5.7 million seed round in 2017; two years later, it followed that up with a $14.5 Series A led by Pasadena-based Palisades Ventures. The robots are now on their third generation: the more Boyer and Palomares learn by visiting farms and talking to farmers, the more they are able to refine and advance the technology that underlies their platform.
“We weren’t coming to them with anything to sell,” Boyer says of the farms with whom FarmWise has developed partnerships. “We were really coming to them with more questions than answers.” Their focus on weeding is the result of these interviews.
“If you look at farming as a whole, three quarters of all the chemicals used are used to kill weeds,” Boyer tells Forbes. In the absence of herbicides—which are never used for organic crops—weeding is done by hand, which is a problem, because the U.S. labor force does not have the hands that producers need. In 2018, the USDA reported that American farms have found it increasingly difficult to hire and maintain workers; in a survey of 1,000 Californian farmers that came out the following year, 42% of respondents said they adapted to labor scarcity by reducing pruning or weeding, and 27% said they delayed those same processes.
FarmWise’s cofounders, both born in France, met as classmates at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, in Palaiseau. Palomares had grown up helping his grandparents at their farm in a small town in the Alps. “They were making yogurt and cheese, like a lot of farms in France,” he says; either way, from a young age he intuited the physical demands that farm work placed on the human body, and the emotional effects wrought when that labor brought insufficient fruits. After graduation, Palomares went to Stanford, and Boyer to MIT, but they kept in touch and eventually decided to launch a company that would draw on their shared interest in technology, sustainability and agriculture.
Recently, FarmWise has released a beta version of a new grower dashboard to a few customers, which will allow farmers better and more precise insights—like crop count, crop size, and spacing trends, for instance—into crop conditions. They are also hoping to expand the crop varieties on which the robots can work, which they believe the deep-learning their technology employs makes them uniquely positioned to do.
“Competitors who develop automated weeders often rely on simple infrared technologies and human-defined parameters which fail at successfully handling the variety of use cases we have to deal with in the field,” Boyer explains.
For Alain Pincot, a managing partner at Betteravia Farms, which sells its produce under the label Bonipak, getting involved with FarmWise was a no-brainer. “We are, I think, a very progressive organization,” he says. Like the Farmwise founders, Pincot is French—he came to California to study agribusiness at Santa Clara University—and says that, in terms of welcoming automation into the agricultural industry, the U.S. is a bit behind.
“I think Europeans are ahead of us Americans,” Pincot says. “They have experienced much earlier than us constraints with labor, and cost of labor. As early as the mid 90s or early 2000s, they were already thinking about how they could reduce their cost. While in the U.S., we still had it—let’s face it—pretty good.” The USDA report affirms this latter part of Pincot’s analysis: in the latter half of the 20th century, the U.S. enjoyed an influx of inexpensive labor from Mexico, which has now, for a variety of reasons, declined.
Boyer and Palomares believe that the technology they have already created will serve as the launchpad for future endeavors, including moving into vineyards, tree crops, and commodity crops like corn, soybean and wheat. The company plans to expand into crop protection and fertilizing, in addition to its weeding services.
As it does so, Boyer says, the startup will keep an eye on creating jobs, not just automating them. “The impact that we have on jobs is to create a new type of farming job,” one without grueling manual labor. These new jobs, Boyer believes, will be not only better paid, but also “more interesting.”
“These are the jobs of tomorrow for the farming industry,” he says. “That will create a totally new type of workforce.”