Rory Aronson – FarmBot – Ep 27

Rory Aronson, CEO at FarmBot

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Rory Aronson from FarmBot, who we will be talking to about how their autonomous home garden system is helping consumers take control of what fresh produce they grow and consume.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hi there and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork” the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Rory Aronson from FarmBot, who I’ll be talking to about how their autonomous home garden system is helping consumers take control of what fresh produce they grow and consume.

So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Well, good morning, Rory. How are you?

[00:00:26] Rory Aronson: I’m doing well. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:28] Mitchell Denton: Before we get into it, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and maybe a fun fact about yourself.

[00:00:35] Rory Aronson: Yeah. So, um, my name’s Rory Aronson, I live in California. I grew up surfing down in San Diego. Still like to go out occasionally, but, um, yeah, you know, I really like living in the community. I like building things, um, whether that’s little passion projects or strange bicycles or something more on the engineering side.

So when I was in school, I, I decided, “Hey, I want to, uh, grow a garden. That’s kind of a form of building”. And quickly realised that I’m not very good at that. So, I launched into, to a big project that, that we’ll talk about today.

[00:01:09] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. Great. Well, continuing on from that, would you mind telling us a little more about the history of FarmBot and how your innovative technology works?

[00:01:19] Rory Aronson: Yeah. So, as I mentioned, I started growing a garden while I was, um, in college. And realised, you know, this is kind of a lot of work. You know, I’m busy with school, with hanging out with my friends, with going and traveling.

You know, making ends meet basically and gardening while, while it can be fun for me, it’s not really my passion, it’s not really my hobby. 

And so, while I was in school, I was playing around with 3D printers, with laser cutters, CNC machining equipment. And I thought to myself, “Hey, where’s, where’s all this type of stuff for the garden? Where is, the 3d printer for the vegetable patch?” 

Uh, and that’s kind of how FarmBot started. So at this point, you know, I still today describe FarmBot as a very big 3D printer that’s meant to be outside. And instead of extruding plastic, it plants seeds, it waters, weeds, takes pictures, and it’s all controlled from your phone.

[00:02:16] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s great. So I guess I’m wondering with your engineering background, would you say FarmBot is an engineering project first with positive social and environmental outcomes, or is it more of a food and farming solution that leverages your engineering skills?

[00:02:32] Rory Aronson: I think it’s a little bit of both, but if I had to choose one, I’d say it’s a food and farming solution first.

You know, maybe farming is a bit of a stretch, I’d say more gardening. Um, just because the machines are pretty small scale. But you know, I originally created it because I wanted to be able to grow garden at home and have fresh veggies.

At then I, I used my engineering skills and the knowledge I had of other equipment and sort of ported that over to the agricultural space. As opposed to, you know, contriving, some type of engineering projects, and then realising, “Hey, I could use this for agriculture or social good.”

[00:03:07] Mitchell Denton: Mm, absolutely. I feel like if you were to ask just about anyone on the street, if they’d prefer to have access to their own garden of fresh produce, over having to shop for supplies, just about everyone would agree that they’d prefer to collect fresh produce from their garden. So what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points with consumers and cultivating their home garden for fresh produce?

Hmm. 

[00:03:30] Rory Aronson: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there. Pretty much everybody wants fresh produce in their backyard. They like the idea of being in control of their food system, really understanding and knowing that the food that they’re putting in their body and, and feeding to their family and friends is healthy.

That it’s fresh, that it’s nutritious. You know, everyone wants to have a low impact, um, and gardening is a great way to do that, to grow food at home. But, ask anyone on the street and probably only 5-10% of people will tell you that they actually do grow any significant amount of food at home.

Part of that is because people live in apartments and they just don’t have the space. But a big part of it is because gardening does take a lot of work. And it takes, uh, a lot of knowledge, a lot of diligence, you need to be out there every other day, every couple weeks to put in a lot of effort.

Some of that effort is manual labour, some of it requires specialised knowledge. Some of it requires just tedious effort out in the garden to, to keep everything up and running. And people have busy lives and they have a lot of other passions. People like to play music, they play sports, they hang out with their friends, they, uh, like to travel. 

And pretty much all of those other things, if at the end of the day you don’t have another 30 minutes or hour to spend in the garden, the garden’s probably not gonna, you know, make your list of things to do. 

And so, you know, I think the biggest pain point or, or maybe barrier is that a lot of people just aren’t that interested. They want the result of the garden but they are not willing to put in the time and effort and learning required to make it happen. 

And that’s why I think FarmBot is very much a technological approach to the garden. And that’s because, look at the average homeowner in the world, and most people have a washing machine and a dryer. 

These are appliances that do what was once a very manual labour-intensive task for people, um, and it, and it does it for you automatically, it’s very easy to use and you know, most people, if they have the space, they would want a washing machine and dryer in their home.

Um, you know, if you live in a small apartment, you need to go to the laundromat, which is inconvenient. But you know, pretty much nobody’s washing their clothes by hand anymore. Because you know, it’s just not a hobby of a lot of people. And I think FarmBot is sort of that same approach towards the garden.

Everyone wants the result, fresh produce, but not very many people wanna put in that effort. And some technology, if it’s really easy to use, if it’s appliance-like, can help them get that end result without having to do the typically, manual processes involved.

[00:06:12] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of automation. I love having smart technology throughout my house. Smart lights, vacuums, anything you can think of really, I’m all for it, so why not the garden really? 

I see that FarmBot has a strong lean towards education. Whether that be having a FarmBot system within school bodies or some form of one-on-one or personalised FarmBot training, would you say that education plays a big role in sustainable farming?

[00:06:41] Rory Aronson: Yeah. Um, you know, I it’s been a surprise, for me and the company that a big percentage of our customers about 50% of our FarmBots are going to schools at the K through 12 level FarmBot is used as a teaching tool to teach robotics, soil science, nutrition, plant biology, electronics, coding, really a big variety of, of topics that the FarmBot kind of touches on. 

And at the university level, FarmBot is more of a research tool for, you know, cutting edge research projects, you know, that have to do with different seed varieties, different inputs, different growing methods, different growing media, et cetera.

And so, yeah, when I first started the project and eventually launched the product to the public. I figured, you know, maybe 5 or 10% of our customer base would be in the education sector, but, you know, happily surprised it’s actually quite a bit larger. Um, again, about 50% of our FarmBots go to schools.

And that’s because, the education system very much understands that food is really important. Everyone needs to eat three times a day. And, not that many people go into the field of agriculture, very few people are farmers these days. Um, but that doesn’t take away the need for figuring out better and better farming systems. 

Um, we all know that the population’s growing and that more and more people are, in the world are eating more calories and more kind of like, um, expensive calories, so to speak calories that aren’t just, you know, a vegetable straight from the ground, but a vegetable that was grown and fed to a cow and then the cow process for meat, et cetera.

[00:08:22] Mitchell Denton: Mm-hmm 

[00:08:22] Rory Aronson: And so, globally we have a lot of stuff to figure out if we’re gonna feed everyone and feed everyone in a healthy way, especially a sustainable way. So, yeah, education is absolutely a big role in what we do at FarmBot. And, it’s really important to get the younger and sort of the next generation excited about, uh, what you can do in this space.

Most young people, I think if you, Give ’em a shovel and a hose. That’s not gonna be that exciting for them. Manual labour may be not as exciting, um, doing repetitive tasks, not enjoyable for a long period of time. But if you give ’em a tool, you know, and you can program something, you know, interact with a machine in real time, that’s a little more cutting edge, a little more exciting, you know, it’s kind of like the battle bots of, of farming in a way.

You sort of gamify it, and now all of a sudden students are really excited. They want to with the FarmBot. They wanna figure out how they can grow something better than the other students. Uh, they want to figure out how they can optimise stuff and that’s kind of what we need, if we’re gonna really figure out all those other problems.

[00:09:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Fantastic. I see that you’ve made your work open source. What’s the thought behind that?

[00:09:35] Rory Aronson: Yeah. So that’s a major component. All of FarmBot is 100% open source. And for those who don’t know what that means, it’s basically all of the 3D CAD models that we use to manufacture the parts, all of the electronic schematics, all of the software. It’s all, all of it’s given away for free online. 

So in theory, if somebody didn’t wanna buy a FarmBot from us, they could actually just go and look at our documentation, um, the CAD models, et cetera, and they could actually build a complete FarmBot themselves.

Obviously that would take a lot of other skills and know how, you know, you’d have to know how to 3D plastic parts., you’d have to know how to machine aluminum. Um, you’d have to know a thing or two about electronics, but, in theory, you could go out and basically build the machine yourself. 

And what we’re trying to do is really, when we sell a kit to a customer, we want them to truly own the technology. Um, there’s a lot of other agricultural companies, John Deere and Monsanto and these big mega corporations. And they’ve gotten a lot of pushback in recent years because of how proprietary they are. 

Back, you know, 50 years ago when you bought a tractor from John Deere, as a farmer, you really owned that tractor. If it broke, you could repair it, if, you needed to make some modifications, you were empowered to do that. But in recent years, you know, they’ve been integrating software into it, and there’s these, software controls that prevent people from making modifications from fixing it when it breaks. 

You have to go to the John Deere certified reseller or whoever to get genuine parts, et cetera. And you know, a lot of that is under the guise of, “Well, we’re protecting the consumer, we’re, we’re making sure that they don’t break the machine more”. 

Uh, but in reality it just, it, it’s restrictive and it sort of locks people into a specific ecosystem and basically puts them at the mercy of these big corporations. And there’s a lot of AgTech companies who are just like that, who are fully proprietary. If you try and do anything outside of the parameters of what is good for their business model.

You know, they’re gonna come and sue you. Uh, and so that’s very, you know, that’s the antithesis of what farming used to be. Farming used to be, uh, this communal effort farmers would help each other, they’d fix their own tractors, you’d be friends with the mechanic, you’d share seeds. 

Um, and gardening is still very much that way, you help your neighbour out, you share in the bounty of what you’ve grown, you process stuff together, you ask somebody else for advice, and it’s very much this sort of open source, free flowing of information ecosystem. 

So FarmBot is taking that free flowing information aspect of gardening that still exists and bringing it to a technological solution. That the other AgTech companies are very much against, you know, they have kind of the opposite business model. 

Uh, at the end of the day, I think that good food should be shared with family, with friends, and likewise, the methods by which you grow that good food should also be shared.

I think its just the right thing to do, and so that’s why FarmBot is 100% open source.

[00:12:56] Mitchell Denton: That’s really cool. I love that. I, I, I love that it’s like this advanced form of, of gardening, but it’s a real return to form at the same time, which is really cool. What’s the biggest surprise you found when first venturing into food production?

[00:13:10] Rory Aronson: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a good question. I would say. Yeah, it’s it’s finicky. Um, , you know, there are so, so many variables to successfully grow something, anything, you know, some crops aren’t easier than others, but there’s always ways to kind of screw it up. 

Um, and we have customers all over the world, so everyone’s got a different environment, they have different soil types, different amounts of shade and sun in their yard, at different times of the day. Some places are windy, some places have frost um, in the middle of the night, some places, the growing season is really short and other places it’s kind of year round.

The type and quality of your seeds matters a lot. There’s just so many variables and then, you know, not to mention all the things that can go wrong, moulds, diseases, pests like aphids, beetles and bugs and all sorts of stuff can kind of go wrong.

And that’s a major turnoff, maybe going back to that previous question, a big pain point for consumers is, a lot of people while they don’t currently manage a garden at home. A lot of people have done it before, or they’ve tried. 

Um, and a lot of people have been turned off by it because they went out of town for a weekend and they come back and, you know, everything looked bad, you know, it didn’t get watered properly or some type of pest like a disease or a, um, aphids took over their garden and, and everything looked like it was going so well, and then a couple days later goes by and, oh my gosh, the whole thing is filled with bugs. 

Um, and so there’s, there’s just a lot of variables and ways in which growing food can go wrong. And that’s, that’s gonna be an ongoing challenge. Um, Something that’s exciting about being open source is that we’re encouraging our customer base to share information and help build this sort of like product and ecosystem together.

Like I said, gardeners, like to help each other, they like to share seeds, they like to give each other advice, because it’s not a competition, it’s if, if everybody is more successful, it’s just, we have more abundance. 

And I think the same mentality transfers over to people who are growing food in their backyard with FarmBots, which is, “Hey, if, if I figure something out, that’s really successful, I wanna share that with the community and know that it’s gonna help them and probably, you know, at some point in the future, the community’s gonna come up with some ideas that solve problems that I have”. 

And so sort of that win-win situation. And so, yeah, I I’d say the, the biggest challenge or, or surprise is that food production is finicky but if you get a lot of people involved, and there’s a lot, there’s good methods for sharing information and sort of troubleshooting together, We’re gonna figure it out and we’re gonna figure it out a lot better and faster than people working in their own little silos. 

Whether that’s at a company like, you know, an ag company or, just an individual in their backyard, as soon as you come together and, and come into community and have that “rising tide, lifts all boats” type of mentality, um, it’s really just gonna benefit everyone in the end.

[00:16:17] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, totally, totally. Speaking of challenges, what would you say is the biggest challenge your team have encountered up until this point with developing your innovative products? 

[00:16:26] Rory Aronson: Yeah, that’s a good question. Um, I’d say the biggest challenge is that FarmBot is, is complicated. Um, going back on how many issues can arise in the garden. 

We’re making a product that has over 1000 parts in it. Um, over 100 unique parts, there’s electronics, there’s metal parts, plastic parts, there’s packaging, there’s obviously lots and lots of software and data. 

And there’s just a lot different aspects of what we’re producing that all have to kind of come together, and all have to have a certain level of quality and reliability in order to add up to a product that somebody can actually use and can rely on and be excited about. 

So there’s just a lot, a lot going on, you know, if we were making like smartphone cases, it’s like, okay, cool that’s a single piece of plastic and it, it just needs to fit the phone and that’s it. 

Um, you know, it’s a very simple sort of business model with, with a product like that. But ours is quite complex, there’s software for our application that runs on a server in the cloud. Um, it has to then get loaded into a web browser and it has to communicate with this physical machine that’s connected to your home WiFi and you know, then it has to move these motors and read these sensors.

And at the end of the day, it has to interact with this ever changing environment, which is the garden, um, where there’s things growing and moving. And, it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s windy, it’s snowy, rainy. Um, so yeah, there’s just a lot of stuff going on. I’d say that’s, that’s, you know, maybe the biggest challenge is sort of balancing the development of all of those different aspects.

And really trying to figure out where is the area that, that we’re gonna get the most bang for our buck in terms of product improvement, you know, overall agricultural capability, as well as usability for the end customer.

[00:18:20] Mitchell Denton: When it comes to food loss and sustainable gardening, what’s the biggest area your team are curious about and why, or to put it in another way? What, what are some of the things you’re researching the most right now?

[00:18:31] Rory Aronson: Uh, yeah. So when, when it comes to food loss, um, you know, by nature, the FarmBot is, you know, and growing food at home, whether that’s with FarmBot or just gardening is going to be more sustainable and results in less waste than basically any other system. 

When food is grown out in the field, first off, a lot of that food doesn’t even make it to the grocery store.

Um, it gets rejected because it has little imperfections in it. It gets, uh, rejected because in the time it took to transport from the field to the grocery store and ultimately to the customer, it was gonna take too long. 

And so they, you know, It spoiled and was beyond the expiration date. Then you have food that gets actually brought home and because it’s taken, you know, maybe weeks to be transported from the field to your refrigerator, the shelf life is more limited there.

And so maybe you’re, you’re gonna throw away 20, 25% of the food that you even buy, um, before you even prepare it. And so, by virtue of, you know, reducing the distance and the time from the ground to your refrigerator or your fork that in itself is reducing food loss, by quite a bit, you only harvest out of the garden exactly what you need for the meal that you’re preparing in that moment. 

Because it’s so fresh, or, or because it can continue growing if you haven’t pulled it outta the ground yet, um, you know, there’s gonna be very little food loss from the garden to the fork. 

Which is really great. There’s just inefficiencies all over the place, there’s a couple of really great Ted Talks where, you know, somebody holds up 10 crackers and illustrates how one cracker, you know, gets thrown away because of this reason, one cracker for that reason.

And at the end of the day, you have like two crackers left, that actually get eaten by humans. And I think if, if you look at a FarmBot system or a garden in your backyard, probably, you know, eight or nine of the crackers that you grow, you’re going to eat. 

That’s a major plus of a FarmBot system and growing food at home its just a lot, um, more sustainable by nature when it comes to food loss. 

In terms of like the research that we’re doing in that area, though, You know, I wouldn’t say we do a lot of research at the company.

We’re, we’re mainly just trying to develop the hardware and the software product to be as easy as possible, so that more and more people can start to realise that benefit of growing food at home.

[00:20:53] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. So on the back end of that question, is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?

[00:21:03] Rory Aronson: Yeah. Um, yeah, I really like watching the right to repair movement that’s sort of slowly taking a foothold in sort of like the consumer electronics industry. 

That’s not exactly, you know, AgTech but it’s the, the right to repair idea is, you know, kind of goes hand in hand with open source and it goes hand in hand with how our machine is designed, which is for kind of the DIY maker type person, uh, which is that, hey, if one of the parts on your FarmBot breaks.

You can absolutely just call us up and we’ll send you a replacement, you know, under warranty type of thing. But also if you have a 3D printer at home, you can print out your own replacement part, you know, and have your machine back up and running in a matter of hours. 

And you can find the, the CAD model and all the information you need for how to do that with, you know, less than five clicks of your mouse on our website, you can get to the exact information you need. 

And so I think we’re helping to push the consumer expectation when you buy a product to include the right to repair and not only the right, but also the means to repair.

Uh, you know, the CAD models, the information, the videos, the customer support that doesn’t just steer you to buying a replacement, but steers you to, hey, you actually have options here. Some options might save you some money, some options might get you a result more quickly. 

And on top of that, you know, here’s a bunch of other cool things that you can do with your FarmBot that maybe you didn’t realise you could do, because it doesn’t do that right out of the box, but with this sort of open source, DIY maker mentality and community of users, there’s just a lot that you can do, which is really, really cool.

[00:22:52] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. So what’s one thing you wish you had known when you first started developing FarmBot’s backyard technology?

[00:23:00] Rory Aronson: I mean, I guess there’s, hindsight’s always 20/20, right? So,

you know, I, I look back on some of our earlier versions of the hardware and even the software sometimes and I just, you know, cringe. It’s like, 

“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we shipped that. You know, because the, the latest version is so much better, it it’s more sleek, it’s more reliable, it’s, it’s easier to put together, like all, all of these different aspects.” 

And a lot of that you just have to learn by, by doing, you know, learn through experience. There’s aspects of our product that we developed in hopes that, “Oh, you know, the, the users, the, the customer base is really gonna love this.” 

And it turns out, you know, a couple people really liked it or used that feature or that aspect of their machine, but a lot of other people just totally didn’t care. They wanted just sort of the core functionality and, and didn’t really wanna venture too much farther beyond that. I think if I were to redo it all again, I would focus on a more simplified machine out the starting gate and add more bells and whistles later, more, more judiciously.

Um, we, we definitely came out on the scene with, lots and lots of software settings. And you could sort of like tweak every little aspect of the FarmBot. And it was really cool for the people who, who wanted to get in there and like fine tune their system. But it also just caused a lot of kind of chaos and confusion amongst people who weren’t as technical, who didn’t want to tune anything, they wanted it tuned out of the box.

You know, they wanted it just to open it up and at work, which totally makes sense. Um, and I think if I were to do it all again, I would start more on that more like consumer product side, rather than like a maker, hacker side of things and say, “Okay, we’re gonna, we’re gonna very judiciously add bells and whistles and settings.

And instead it, it should come with these reasonable defaults and just be more friendly to the average Joe, out of the box.

[00:25:00] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So as we come to a closed Rory, I just wanna ask what is the main thing you really want the listeners to take away from this episode? 

[00:25:09] Rory Aronson: Hmm. Yeah, that, if I could tell the world one thing, hmm. 

Um, you know, I would say, make yourself open to options out there. Do some research. What you may have originally thought 5, 10, 15 years ago as being something that you would never do or that you tried doing and, and realised this isn’t for me, give it a second shot.

Um, go and research new innovative ways that, that people are doing stuff like growing food at home obviously, or producing renewable energy or, uh, recycling, you know, all these things that are required for. Us to live sustainably on this Earth. 

Things are moving quickly. There’s a lot of people working on projects on technologies, on businesses that support these sort of sustainable avenues of living.

And there’s a lot of cool stuff always coming out. And so things that you may not have thought existed or were possible five years ago, very well might be available today. Um, that’s a big thing that I get when people first hear about FarmBot, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this exists, like this is so cool.” 

You know, they’re sort of blown away and sort of taken a back by it. And then there’s also this thought that comes alongside that, which is, “Wow, I can’t believe this just finally exists that this didn’t exist, you know, 10 years ago.” 

And I think there’s a lot of stuff out there like that, you know, FarmBot is five years old.

And there’s a lot of other products and, and ideas out there that are one year old that are 10 years old. That maybe when you were first thinking about doing something like growing your own food or recycling something you know, you thought it was impossible, but maybe, maybe no longer.

[00:26:58] Mitchell Denton: I, I need to echo the sentiment that when I first found out about FarmBot, I was like, “I can’t believe this technology exists.” 

And then I, I had, I had that moment of. “I can’t believe it took this long for this technology to exist”, but it’s, um, I think it’s the solution that so many people have been waiting for, and just didn’t know it.

I think, I think so many people want something like this in their life. So it’s really exciting stuff, but unfortunately, we are coming to a close, so that’s it for today’s episode “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. 

Thanks for listening. And thank you, Rory, for joining me. 

[00:27:32] Rory Aronson: Absolutely. Thank you.

[00:27:33] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Rory and FarmBot, check out the link in the description of the episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends. 

Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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