LOCKHART, Texas (KXAN) — At least half of Texas is dealing with extreme drought right now, according to the latest drought monitor. A recent report by the United Nations found droughts are becoming more frequent and more intense as a direct result of climate change. These droughts are forcing farmers to search for unique ways to conserve fresh water.
Iron Ox opened earlier this month with sustainability in mind. The 535,000 square-feet facility uses robots and machine learning to guide their farming techniques, reduce waste and grow produce locally.
“We’ve designed a system that’s very modular and flexible, that allows us to get the plants exactly what they need and when they need it,” said Sarah Osentoski, senior vice president of engineering at Iron Ox.
Robots and the future of farming
Plants are grown in six-foot by six-foot beds that can be moved around the facility based on their needs. “We move the plants around our farm rather than moving things around the farm to the plants,” Osentoski said.
These growing beds are moved around by a tiny robot named Grover.
Currently, the farm has 400 of these “modules.” Each is capable of growing a variety of plants. “We can grow almost anything in the system. The question is how you grow it viably and economically.”
From 3D photos to monitoring nitrogen levels using a robot named Phil, Iron Ox uses a variety of advanced tools to enhance their farm.
“We’re trying to measure everything about that plant experience at all the different stages.”
Based on the data they gather, computers are able to provide recommendations to the farmers at the facility.
Osentoski said these recommendations allow them to grow more food and do so with sustainability in mind. “We collect better data and then like, get rid of some of the inefficiencies.”
Reducing water use on the farm
These inefficiencies can contribute to climate change. Food production accounts for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations.
According to the nonprofit news organization Climate Central, climate change is having a direct impact on farmers.
More frequent droughts are putting fresh water supplies in jeopardy. Reducing how much water farmers need may be essential to not only their survival, but the survival of our species.
“Agriculture makes up over 70% of our freshwater today. But the reality is about 90% of that water never even reaches the plants,” said Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander.
He said one of the main ways they conserve water is by using hydroponics.
“We designed our system with our hydroponics to give only the exact amount of water that plant needs and nothing it doesn’t,” Alexander said. Hydroponics use 10x less water than traditional farming, according to the National Parks Service.
“I think one of the big benefits of using hydroponics,” Osentoski said, “is that you can really both monitor and change the amount of water or nutrients or power that you’re using on the farm at all times.”
She’s combining hydroponics with the robots, and machine learning allows them to be precise with their water usage.
Could robots take human farmers jobs?
KXAN asked Iron Ox if farmers should be concerned robots are taking their jobs. Osentoski said the robots can only help farmers. “Robots are really good at these very low, very repetitive jobs. But when you get to like creativity … people are so good at that.”
Osentoski said creative problem solving is essential to good farming. “This automation working together with humans gets you this really, really efficient farm that like, serves the community quite well.”
When the facility is fully operational, they will have 5,400 modules available for planting. Right now, they’re focused on growing lettuce and herbs. They said these will be on store shelves soon.
They plan to grow strawberries, peppers and cucumbers in the future.