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US (NY): 'Robot farmers' pioneer climate-resilient farming in the North Country

About a mile outside of the village of Sackets Harbor, a cluster of long, white buildings rises from a field on the shore of Lake Ontario. The facility sits in contrast to the early 19th century architecture of the nearby town, and unlike the surrounding farms, there are no sprawling fields of corn or barns full of dairy cows.

But that is exactly what this cluster of buildings is: a farm. It also features something not typically present in the average farmstead: a bank of computer servers. “It’s meant to continually improve the efficiency with which we grow crops, get higher yields and continuously improve the quality of crops we’re growing,” says owner John Gaus.

Gaus, a Watertown native, is the founder of AgBotic, the company behind this facility. The firm is using highly automated, next-generation greenhouses to cultivate crops under precisely controlled climate conditions.

Anyone entering the AgBotic complex has to walk through a shallow tray containing a hydrogen peroxide and bleach mixture, to kill any harmful organisms that may be hitching a ride. The farm is certified organic, meaning there are no pesticides employed to keep insects of fungi out. Gaus says this is mixture is the strongest chemical in use at the facility.

Gaus calls these workers the world’s first robot farmers because many of the traditional farming tasks have been automated. This arugula was picked by a machine that looks like a large Roomba. Seeding and watering are also handled by a machine AgBotic calls the robot gantry. “It's essentially our indoor tractor,” he explains. “We can deposit nutrients in the soil we can till the soil form rows. We can plant seeds with a very high degree of precision,” noting how uniformly the rows of sprouts were deposited.

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