Farm equipment is poised to undergo a revolution with manufacturers exploring electrification, automation and artificial intelligence and some farmers taking the chance to pioneer the new technologies
On a quiet vineyard in southern California, a familiar sight meets the eye: grape vines gently coiled up in acres of trellis, plenty of sun, blue sky and a telltale sign of work being done as a dusty plume appears mid-field.
The dust cloud and near-perfect silence signals what makes Wente Vineyards nearly unique in the world: an all-electric, compact smart tractor made by local manufacturer Monarch Tractors.
Wente Vineyards is the test site for Monarch, a company looking to disrupt the agriculture industry by building an all-electric compact tractor with AI capabilities. Founded in 2018, Monarch has been developing its product for over two years. Now, with just a few months left to go in late-stage development, the company is preparing to send its first orders of electric tractors to customers around the world — including Canada.
“In Canada there is great opportunity for us,” says Monarch co-founder and president, Mark Schwager. “Obviously the farming industry is huge and we have a solution that, I think, is applicable for any farm. We are excited to come to Canada and bring our technology there.”
Schwager and his company have identified a key under-serviced demographic in the global transition to electrification: farmers. While Monarch is not the only company offering a version of an electric tractor, the fact that the start-up is demonstrating an active, early interest in getting their vehicle into the Canadian market speaks volumes about the potential impact for Canada and the need for more widespread education and incentives to transition.
Breadbasket of the world, behind in tech
Canadian farms supply food to hundreds of countries around the world and the industry is critical to the global supply chain. Renowned as “the breadbasket of the world,” Canada’s agricultural industry has been identified by the federal government as “one of the sectors with the highest economic growth potential.”
Agriculture in Canada accounts for 6.7 per cent of national gross domestic profit and 12.5 per cent of national employment, according to the most recent StatsCan data from 2016. But with over 193,492 farms across Canada, the industry’s machines also account for 8.4 per cent of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
It’s on the technology side — especially with tractor electrification — that Canada is falling short, though it’s not for lack of interest.
“We have been thinking about electric tractors for quite some time,” says Darrin Qualman, National Farmers Union director of climate crisis policy and action in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
“It’s different region to region because the scale of the machinery is a lot different. In a place where the machinery is smaller — tractors that are 200 horsepower or less — I think people are quite interested and open to electric tractors. [Elsewhere] farmers are buying tractors with hundreds and hundreds of horsepower and there is nothing available. There is just no path for that.”
Strategies around the world
The problem of finding a machine to fit the size of job is not a problem unique to Canada. Other countries around the world grapple with farms that stretch over thousands of acres and require specialty equipment.
Unlike Canada though, other jurisdictions are actively exploring non-gas or non-diesel options, which prompted BIS Research to release a report entitled: Global Powered Agriculture Equipment Market. The report indicates trends in electrified farming equipment between 2020-2025, finding the “market is projected to grow from US$63.17 billion and 2,217.8 thousand units in the year 2019 to US$70.03 billion and 2,359.7 thousand units by 2025.”
The report also revealed that Asia-Pacific region and Japan were among the leaders in electric powered farm equipment sales in 2019, with China and North America following.
What Monarch has an eye to achieve in Canada and elsewhere in the global farming community is to redefine the framework that determines what a farm is and to establish operational best practices.
Armed with a decade of manufacturing expertise, Schwager believes the future of farming lies in changing the paradigm of thinking about what a farm actually is in order to maximize efficiency, yield and profit.
“What’s a great opportunity in farming is actually to apply manufacturing process and manufacturing approach because the farm is a factory for food,” explains Schwager. “If we take that approach and apply manufacturing principles and technology…to farms and were able to produce even half of that productivity increase, we are going to be more than sufficient for the amount of food we need to feed the growing global population.”
It’s a goal echoed by the NFU. “Our capacity for food production is functioning at less than maximum, while malnutrition and poverty continue to prevail in large sectors of the Canadian population and in much of the world,” reads their website.
“We bear the burden of a productive ability in food supply that is an embarrassment to our nation.”
Will it work?
In the game of manufacturing, large farms already have an edge: they have existed for the entire history of the industry as self-contained, vertically integrated ecosystems. The food is harvested in the same spot it grows, which is the same spot it was planted.
And farmers are already comfortable and accustomed to running their own show: they select the crops; prepare the land; select the seeds and sow them; they irrigate, tend the growth, fertilize and harvest — and then they repeat the process over and over again.
The ingredients are nearly all there for farms to be a highly successful and profitable operation, save for a near complete absence of technological innovation — that is to say automation and “smart” software — over the last 50 years, according to Schwager.
“It hasn’t been a focus of traditional tractor companies to electrify because there hasn’t been any pressure to do so,” says Schwager. “Because tractor companies have not really changed their products in 50 years there is no real advantage from upgrading to the newest tractor. The maintenance costs may be slightly lower, but you don’t get any other capabilities on that tractor. What we are doing is completely changing that landscape and providing so many tools and so many technologies that are going to make farmers better at what they do. There is a real incentive for farmers to upgrade to our equipment.”
Even with zero-emissions becoming the guiding principle of Canadian policy and a global pandemic underscoring exactly how fragile the global supply chain is, Qualman says there is still a lot of advancement needed before the idea of an all-electric farm is possible.
“There is kind of a disconnect between small and medium tractors, which are easily electrified with off the shelf parts. You just essentially scale-up what GM and Tesla are doing. And then the other end is the big combines — some of them are running 500-600 horsepower tractors — I just don’t know how you scale-up that electric technology to get you that.”
Qualman says what will likely end up being the catalyst for widespread change in the agricultural industry is what heavy-duty, long-haul trucks choose to do to lower their emissions. Will they find an electric solution or go with hydrogen technology?
“A lot of the same powertrains [in tractors] are in those big trucks and require about the same energy source,” he says. “We assume however the long-haul truck sector goes that’s the way the big tractor and combine machine sectors will go.”
The economic argument
As with an industry contemplating a shift, there is always the inevitable moment when the ledgers are pulled out and the question is asked: is this feasible?
Qualman says right now, it’s unlikely. Even if the right electric equipment was available to buy, the anticipated price and lack of purchase incentives across Canada puts it out of reach for most farmers who already shell out up to a million dollars for a new combine harvester. It’s an expense that only comes around once every 30 to 40 years (tractors are meticulously maintained in order to draw out a longer life) and when it does come time for a replacement, customers are trying to get a break on cost, not add a premium for going electric.
“Not many people are going to be able to line up for those big pieces of electrified equipment,” says Qualman. “I don’t think the people who are my neighbours — they just don’t see it as a possibility even in 10 years.”
For Schwager the upfront costs are offset by the long-term gains. If an electric tractor is in operation for decades, the owners are going to see a positive return on their investment with savings in fuel and maintenance, savings in labour costs and increased usage efficiency with the “smart” features baked into the machine.
“With electrification we can significantly lower those costs,” says Schwager. “You can change your approach to farming because you aren’t anchored by the economics of labour and of fuel.”
A case study
Where electric farming equipment does have an opportunity to put down roots in the industry is in small- to-medium-sized tractors, say both Schwager and Qualman, because the economic benefit at this level is best realized. This is the market share that newer manufacturers like Solectrac and Monarch and older guards like John Deere and AGCO are targeting as they make their first foray into the electrified world.
But what about the customer experience with those few electric tractors actually working in the fields?
While a large-scale study has yet to be performed on the industry as a whole, one Ontario farmer — perhaps the first electric tractor adopter in Canada — says his experience shows going green puts farms in the green.
“In Ontario with the price of electricity and the price of gas, I’m saving about 50 per cent,” said Tony Neale in an interview with farms.com. Neale is the owner of Wheelbarrow Farm, a 10-acre property in Uxbridge, Ont., just outside of Toronto.
Neale bought his all-electric Solectrac eUtility tractor in August 2018 for around $54,000. Sick of (and from) his exhaust-spewing diesel tractor, Neale decided he wanted a cleaner, quieter and more efficient work vehicle for his farm, even if it meant a jump in cost.
Neale’s interest in technological trends led him to the idea of an electric tractor and a Google search landed him on Solectrac’s website. Shortly thereafter, he was flying to California to consult with Solectrac to help assemble the electric tractor — with only one moving motor part as opposed to over 300 in a gas-powered engine — just right for his farm.
“This tractor is proof that electric tractors can be commercially produced and used by different farmers,” Neale said, also citing the added weight of the battery pack — a detractor in other vehicle types — is actually a benefit to farmers because it gives the tractor more traction. “We could see a day where we don’t need traditional fossil fuels.”
Nearly four years later, Neale’s electric tractor continues to be used on his farm.
“It’s beyond proof of concept,” said Neale in an interview with the Toronto Star. “We’re past that. This is proof of commercial viability.”
The future of farming
For Qualman, Neale and Schwager, the conversation about electric farm equipment has gotten easier in the last two years — even if the farmers haven’t actually tried out the technology themselves, they appreciate the possibilities a transition offers. Education about options is more widespread and word of mouth about success stories like Neale’s in the tight-knit community makes a big impact.
Industry organizations around the world are increasingly pushing manufacturers for options and governments for purchase incentives, while trade shows offer opportunities for farmers to look at the machinery of the future. The obstacle that will be the most difficult hurdle for both manufacturers and farmers to overcome in the transition to electric is time.
“The thing that has the longest service life is a tractor. If my neighbour buys a new tractor now someone is going to be using that tractor 30, 40 years from now,” says Qualman. “That’s why it’s so important to get these electric tractors options out there as soon as possible, because it’s going to take 30, 40 or 50 years to turn over the machinery. It could take decades just to get half the equipment changed out. That’s why you’ve got to get started.”