Agbotic building greenhouse to ready for rollout of agricultural robot
Envision a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse with an automated robot that spans its 52-foot width, sliding back and forth on tracks to water vegetables and till soil to prevent weeds. That vision will soon be a reality for Agbotic Inc. of Potsdam, a startup business that has been testing a prototype of such a robot for about a year at a farm on County Route 75 in the town of Hounsfield.
Workers began building the large robotic greenhouse earlier this month and plan to have it operational by September, said John P. Gaus of Potsdam, who launched Agbotic last year. Gaus said he believes the robotic greenhouses — about $350,000 to build — will be especially popular among farmers in the north country. They have an economic model that will “help farmers make cash” by growing organic vegetables Agbotic would find markets in the north country and Northeast metropolitan markets. He said the technology is expected to be popular across the country and globe.
“This automated greenhouse could be used by family farms across the north country. They could be in the business of developing products for Northeast metropolitan markets that can be delivered within 24 hours of harvest,” he said, adding that Agbotic plans to lease and sell the technology to farmers.
Patents are now being sought for the precision tilling and watering robot, he said, which has been tested at a smaller greenhouse for about a year. Research has shown the robot is able to optimize the growth of lettuce, greens and vegetable row crops.
“We have been through six harvest cycles and have gathered data to create an economic model,” said Gaus, who added that data has shown about 1.2 pounds of vegetables per square foot of soil can be grown monthly. Agbotic expects to grow about 12,000 pounds of food per month at its larger greenhouse. Vegetables will be planted there in September, with the first harvest set for October.
Agbotic plans to buy vegetables from farmers with greenhouses, Gaus said, selling the product mainly to food distribution companies in New York City. To help tap markets in the Big Apple, the company plans to work closely with Kevin L. Richardson, coordinator of the North Country Innovation Hot Spot at Clarkson University, Potsdam. He is also the president of North Country Farms on Route 37 in the town of Pamelia.
“Kevin is well-equipped to help find markets in Manhattan for this business because he has that experience,” Gaus said. “Interested parties are prepared to handle the distribution of food to New York City.”
Investors in Agbotic have contributed about $1.5 million in venture capital toward research being conducted at the farm, said Gaus. Most of that funding has come from a Dutch investor who has an interest in sustainable agriculture and energy projects. Among other sources, the startup has been aided by $300,000 from the Seaway Private Equity Corp., Potsdam, and $99,650 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program; the grant was applied for by the Development Authority of the North Country.
Gaus said he’s conducted a handful of experiments with greenhouses there in recent years. But the Agbotic project is unique, he said, because the robotic technology is designed to operate without the aid of chemicals. “Advanced greenhouses in the Netherlands are hydroponic and use chemicals, and vegetables aren’t grown in organic soil,” said Gaus, who has toured greenhouses in the Netherlands and Canada. “In that regard, we think our greenhouse will be the most advanced of its kind in the world. This is a clever and simple robot, and we’re building it at the lowest cost we can.”
Soil used to grow vegetables tilled by the prototype robot comes from the farm’s organic pasture, commented Gaus. A 15-head herd of Japanese Wagyu beef cattle grazes at the pasture to support its nutrient-rich soil. “The cattle graze at a low density and spread manure to provide nutrients for the soil,” he said. “That soil, which has high organic matter content, is rotated into the greenhouse.”