ROSEBURG, Ore. — Computer-controlled gardening and farming were on display at the recent Douglas County Fair.
The FarmBot display, constructed and presented by Sutherlin, Ore., High School FFA students, consisted of a 10-by-20-foot vegetable garden and a robot that moved over it. The robot, with its camera, sensor and probe, was programmed by the students and then planted the seeds five weeks ago.
Since then, the robot has watered the plants and weeded around them. Carrots, lettuce, beans, radishes, tomatoes, onions, peas, pumpkin, squash and watermelon have been growing green leaves under the watchful eye of the robot’s camera and sensor.
At the fair, visitors could see the robot watering and seeking out weeds by moving left and right on a bar that tracked the length of the garden on side rails. The robot can also test the soil’s acidity and moisture content. If there are issues, messages are emailed to the grower.
“If you have it programmed correctly, you shouldn’t have to touch it until you’re ready to harvest,” said student Sterling Foster, adding that harvest is done manually.
FarmBot is a product name. It’s precision computerized numerical control consists of a robot, software and educational information. It’s been developed over the last 10 years.
Wes Crawford, the agricultural science teacher and FFA advisor at Sutherlin High School, read about FarmBot and decided to challenge some of his students with the project. A $4,000 grant from Secondary Career Pathways in Career and Technical Education was secured to purchase the robot kit and a $5,000 grant from National FFA Grants For Growing sponsored by the Tractor Supply Co. was obtained for purchasing and building the metal base and wood garden boxes and buying the soil and a laptop.
The students who took the lead on the project were Foster, Daniel Lyons, Savannah McHugill and Madison Brown, all juniors this fall, and Alyssa McCormick, who will be a senior. The school’s metal class built the platform that the raised beds sit on.
“Mr. Crawford told us to do the research and to figure it out on our own,” Foster said. “Then if we ran into any problems, he would help us troubleshoot it. He wanted us to take the lead.”
The students did have to manually fill the beds with soil, but then it was all about learning how to program the robot to plant, water and weed. They learned from the FarmBot website and YouTube videos.
“You don’t have to know any previous coding to operate this,” McCormick said. “There are resources to explain it.”
The FarmBot is scaled for backyard gardens or research plots, allowing growers to be gone for a few days while knowing their crops are receiving the needed care. But in their research, the Sutherlin students learned that cameras and sensors are being tested and used for larger operations.
“I learned about how farming can be improved, how this can be implemented in a commercial operation,” said Lyons.
“The technology is slowly moving toward the commercial market with cameras on tractors to detect and spray individual weeds,” Foster said.
Crawford praised the students for their efforts in bringing all aspects of the project together.
“They really jumped in with both feet,” he said. “They literally had to construct it from a tutorial. There was no one there to hold their hand. It required them to step outside their comfort boxes, to show some independence and to solve their own problems. They got it done.”
Crawford said he doesn’t know of another high school ag program in Oregon that is using the FarmBot concept. He has received a couple of phone calls from others who are interested in it.
“It’s about efficiency more than anything,” the teacher said. “The intention is to produce more food in a smaller space. It can also be more efficient with water use.
“This machine will probably never replace production agriculture, but the technology it uses is being used in bigger operations.”
To keep his students engaged while waiting for harvest time, Crawford has given them another challenge: How to program the robot to harvest the vegetables. Foster said he and his classmates are already giving that thought, specifically to harvest the carrots and radishes.