Diversified row crop producer in desperate need of technology

In his 25 years farming, there are only two times Chad Crivelli’s mind has been blown. 

The first was in 2016 when he drove a John Deere 7760 self-propelled cotton picker that made modules by itself. The second came this past year when Bear Flag Robotics’ autonomous tractor, pulling his Case IH 770 offset disc, incorporated wheat stubble in a 150-acre field. 

“I honestly thought it was going to be the latest fad that wasn’t dialed in,” says the third generation farmer. “I couldn’t believe it was making the turns without me touching the steering wheel. The tractor was doing everything it was supposed to. It was beyond amazing.”

As he struggles to find quality labor, it’s a technology the diversified row crop producer desperately needs to ensure his farm stays productive.

“The labor shortage is unbearable. My dad has basically come out of retirement because I can’t find anyone to drive a tractor,” says Crivelli, who farms 1,800 acres in central California. “I need this technology on my equipment.”

It’s a pain point Bear Flag Robotics wants to help farmers address.

Founded in 2017, the California-based company has developed software for tractors that autonomously plans and executes routes using state-of-the-art perception sensors and robotic actuators. It automates tasks such as spraying, mowing, and tilling.

“From a technology perspective, we’re creating a framework we can build on,” says Igino Cafiero, CEO & Founder, Bear Flag Robotics. “Because every crop looks different, we know we have a lot to learn. It’s also why we are focused on tillage right now.”

As they work to bring the concept to market, initiatives like John Deere’s Startup Collaborator have offered critical insight. 

“The goal of the program is to help Deere better interface with ag tech start-ups, so we can learn about what they are developing, and they can learn about what we do,” says Mark Fincham, Business Development Manager, John Deere.

“We want to use our specialty, which is in technology such as perception, mapping, and controls, to ensure the tractor runs safely unmanned. It’s important for us to work with our suppliers, who are the OEMs, and then with customers to bridge that gap,” Cafiero says.

Not only did Deere share its perspective on the technology, the company also introduced Bear Flag to its tillage experts. “One of the times Igino was in Iowa, we went to Des Moines Works and toured the factory,” Fincham says. “We wanted to give him a deep understanding of how we look at tillage, what our machines do and what their capabilities are, as well as the wide range of tillage practices across the U.S.”

Cafiero says the program really helped shape some of the company’s thinking on how to move forward. “We understand what it’s going to take to pull a farmer out of the cab and deliver that utility.”

The Farmer Connection

While these relationships are vital, so, too, are the connections to farmers.

“It’s always great to hear what we’re doing well,” Cafiero says. “But it’s also important to learn what we can do better. Getting feedback from someone like Chad is invaluable. We need to understand how a farmer is using the technology, so we can improve on it to serve his needs not only now but in the future.”

It’s also why the company is initially offering autonomy as a service. 

“It has to be as easy for the farmer as possible,” says Daniel Carmichael, Farming Operations Manager, Bear Flag Robotics. “At no point should there be frustration around what the machine is doing. By offering a service, Bear Flag is always there to make sure the operation goes smoothly as we continue to refine the technology.”

The start-up also wants to ensure farms of all sizes realize the value of this technology – a question Crivelli had for his own operation.

“For technology this advanced, I really thought it would be out of my price range. Surprisingly, it was very reasonable,” he says.

One of the key things the company knows is farmers buy value rather than technology. “Whatever we develop has to provide value. The technology has to pay for itself,” Cafiero says. “Every month a farmer runs a Bear Flag machine is a month that it increases productivity and saves on operational expenses."

In California, autonomous machinery makes a lot of sense. Because labor is less of a concern in the Midwest, he says the conversation will focus on improving productivity and yields.

“We need to talk about how our technology can take advantage of shorter weather windows, how it can reduce soil compaction, and how it can increase yields. These will be the real movers for autonomous machines in the Midwest,” Cafiero says.

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