Food & Drink

This Smart Tractor Aims to Help Farmers Grow Healthier Food

CEO Praveen Penmesta and Chief Farming Officer Carlo Mondavi on how Monarch tractors will bolster sustainable farming and build safer, more regenerative agricultural communities.

Monarch tractor
Monarch tractor | Courtesy of Monarch
Monarch tractor | Courtesy of Monarch

These days, it seems like all the electronics and appliances that surround us are rapidly becoming “smart,” from refrigerators that create phone-synced grocery lists to kitchen faucets that measure out the perfect amount of water for tonight’s pasta. Mass-market electric cars have been around since the mid-90s, but one area that has lagged technologically, according to Praveen Penmesta, CEO and co-founder of the world’s first smart tractor, is farming equipment.

“The tractor, in our mindset, is the most important vehicle in the world,” he told me. “And currently, it does not have any technologies that are available in other parts of our lives. We wanted to correct that.”

With nearly two decades of experience birthing startups in the energy, aerospace and agtech sectors, Penmesta was well poised to bring that old workhorse of the farm, the tractor, into the 21st century. The Monarch tractor, which will start shipping to several hundred working farms this month, is fully electric, smart, and driver-optional. Perhaps most importantly, the tractor is sustainable, producing zero emissions in comparison to traditional diesel tractors, which produce about 17 times the emissions of an average car. 

In advance of the tractor’s launch today, Penmesta, along with Carlo Mondavi of Napa Valley’s storied winemaking family, filled me in on how the Monarch tractor will allow farmers and growers to make farming more sustainable, produce healthier food and protect the soil microbiome that has been all but destroyed by chemical-heavy conventional farming.

Why do today’s farmers need a new type of tractor?
Penmesta: Farmers around the world are facing three main challenges today. One is they're facing a labor shortage across the globe, because people are leaving farming to take other jobs. The second part of it is there's also a sustainability push, where the consumer now wants to know that the food production distribution and delivery was done in a sustainable manner; its impact on the planet is something that they want to see and understand. The third one is that there's increasing demands for transparency from the consumers and the buyers—Costco, Trader Joe's, they all are demanding more data from the farmers with respect to their operations, so that they understand when, where, what and how the food was grown. 

These are global mega trends that are all applying pressure on the farmer. And if you look at the farmer side of the equation, it’s still very much a low margin business; razor thin margins, in fact, and these mega trends are working against these farmers. And if you look at the kind of equipment that they have, especially the tractor, the tractor fundamentally has not evolved in the last hundred years. It’s still providing the same operational benefit to the farmer, but nothing more. And that was the genesis for our tractor, to help give these farmers a leg up in the very modern challenges they’re facing. 

As a farmer, Carlo, how can Monarch improve the lives of the people who grow our food?
Mondavi: The sad fact of the matter is that many farmers today are conventional farmers that use a lot of chemicals in their food production—not because they want to, but because they can’t afford not to. I don't know a single farmer that says that they want to be a conventional farmer—they’re conventional simply because of the economics of the situation.They're doing it because they're trying to put food on the table for their kids, they're trying to put their kids through college. And the cards are really stacked against them. 

Because Monarch is smart and driver-optional, that means we can protect these farmers from the harsh chemicals they’re using right now—that tractor can go out into the field without a driver, so that farmer hangs back and isn’t exposed to the chemicals. I've driven a tractor my whole life, I've done sprays my whole life, and nothing is worse than putting on a hazmat suit. 

Over time, the goal is to move these same farmers towards more regenerative, healthier farming practices. An electric tractor that doesn’t require a driver means you save on a salary and can invest that money into cleaner farming. The cost saved on diesel fuel also contributes. So this eventually enables farmers to be able to go into the clean farming era, and to have more cash in their pocket than they did on the conventional side. 

So what could Monarch mean for the food industry?
Penmesta: These days, the food ecosystem is very global. And in a global food ecosystem, it's very hard to get any transparency around our food ecosystem. How do we know that farmers around the world are following safe practices, especially when you have international buyers? Our tractor has 360-degree cameras around it, from the root layer all the way to the fruit layer. We will be able to see how this food is grown, how it’s harvested, what chemicals are used or not used, capture all that data and send it right through. So that helps the farmers on the automation side, and it also gives confidence to the consumers that these things were done in a sustainable way, with traceability and data scrutiny behind it.

I noticed in your background materials that one of the challenges Monarch seeks to help farmers with is operations during natural disasters and pandemics. Given that we’re in one now, can you speak to this aspect of the technology?
Penmesta: These pandemics are putting our farm workers on the front line of health safety. People often think farming is heavily automated, because they have this image of a big combine harvester going through fields of corn or wheat. But fruits and vegetables, for example, are very labor intensive. In those situations, it’s a lot of people out in the field working very closely together. So then during a pandemic, we are basically asking them to take a health risk in the interest of producing food for the rest of us. How is that an okay thing to do in this day and age? 

And this is where our tractor can play a role. Its automation capabilities mean that we can remove people from the field. We are really acting as a big game changer in removing people from the field, doing these kinds of mundane activities, which during a pandemic are also a health and safety issue. We've seen this in California for example, especially in the row crops, where there have been COVID-19 outbreaks in the agricultural communities. Right now there’s no way around that. Because what are you going to do? Are you going to skip the harvest? Or you’re going to skip planting for the next season? It’s just not possible. So the farmers are caught in these life-or-death kinds of situations, which they should not be.

Thanks for speaking to me.

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Lauren Rothman is a Brooklyn-based food and drinks writer with a soft spot for bourbon, doughnuts, and bourbon-glazed doughnuts. Check out her collection of food snapshots -- and cat pics -- on Instagram at @laurenoliviarothman.
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