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How Tortuga AgTech is using automation to help farmers

Tortuge AgTech 

WHERE: Denver
FOUNDED: 2016

Initial Lightbulb: CEO Eric Adamson was working in consulting for “very large agribusinesses around the world” before co-founding Tortuga AgTech with colleague and automation engineer Tim Brackbill, now CTO. “We were both independently thinking about potentially starting businesses that ended up being similar in thought,” Adamson says.

Brackbill “had been thinking about how to bring more technology that he had seen and worked with and built in other industries to agriculture,” Adamson says. “Because of how difficult and risky a farmer’s job is, they haven’t adopted much technology just yet. Could we do more to bring advanced technology to the farm to improve food quality, reduce food waste, reduce water use, reduce chemical use, even reduce fertilizer use?”

The duo started Tortuga in early 2016 after collaborating on a business plan. The company now has 18 employees.

In a Nutshell: After three years of R&D, Tortuga has been “transitioning into a more operational model” for about a year, Adamson says. “We’re actually doing the job for the farmer every day, picking their fruit and this year getting paid to do so.”

Leveraging computer vision, sensors, machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence, Tortuga’s harvesting robots represent a leap forward in the automation of produce harvesting, he says.

“It’s not a new idea to mechanize or automate harvesting. In many, broad-acre crops — wheat, soy, and corn for processing — people have been using large combines for decades and decades to automate all kinds of jobs on the farm,” Adamson says. “But for most fruits and vegetables, they’re delicate enough and require enough dexterity that they’re mostly still hand-harvested today. They’re often the most high-value crops, because they’re hard to grow and people want to eat them.”

Strawberry growers in California and Europe are Tortuga’s first customers. “Anything that is hand-harvested and grown in a structured or semi-structured environment is a target market for us,” Adamson says. In the pipeline: robots for other berries, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. “It’s just a matter of chasing the right ones,” he says.

“To actually automate the harvest requires a pretty sophisticated level of technology,” Adamson says. “Only in the last few years has it become possible, particularly at the cost that is required [by the farmer]. That’s the biggest hurdle in most robotics applications. Robots these days can do a lot of really cool things, but at what cost?”

Tortuga also offers the ability to better leverage information. The robot collects data that can help with making decisions when and how to sell what they’ve grown, Adamson says.

The company is offering robotic harvesting services to farmers by contract. “A lot of companies are moving to this concept of robotics and other things as a service,” Adamson says. “It’s very helpful for the grower because they can adopt the service much easier than if they had to decide if they had to buy the robot and make a capital investment.”

Rancho Laguna Farms started a trial with Tortuga’s system this spring to harvest strawberries in Santa Barbara County, California.

Kevin Sage, a consultant with Rancho Laguna, says a looming labor crisis — spurred by a higher minimum wage and other factors — has pushed the operation to look at tabletop strawberries, grown in a structure about a meter off the ground.

“It makes it, in my opinion, much more favorable to machines,” Sage says. “In soil, it’s so hard to see the fruit.” He notes that robots will complement, not replace, human labor, dubbing it “a symbiotic relationship.”

Rancho Laguna went with Tortuga because the nascent system was more sophisticated than those from companies that had spent much more time in R&D, Sage adds. “I wanted to go with the companies that had really leapt ahead, and Tortuga was the tip of the spear with that.”

The Market: Huge. Adamson says the retail value of the target produce for Tortuga is about $1 trillion worldwide annually. Labor is typically a grower’s biggest expense, and the company can potentially reduce that cost for clients. “That has been attractive for the growers we are in contact with,” Adamson says. “Fifty percent or more [of their costs] is some sort of labor.”

Financing: “We are venture-backed,” Adamson says, citing “multi-million-dollar” investments in the company.

“The state and the city have helped tremendously,” he adds, citing about $1 million in grants and incentives from Denver and Colorado