Every summer of my childhood, I shipped off to my grandparent’s farm for hours of picking cotton, potatoes, or peanuts under the Texas sun. And honestly? I dreaded it. So, there were a few raised eyebrows around the Alexander family dinner table when I announced I was leaving my dream robotics job to become a farmer.
But Iron Ox isn’t my grandparents’ farm, and I’m not your typical farmer.
Global agriculture, the thing designed to nourish the human race, is killing the Earth. A quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from growing and shipping our food. Even worse, 40 percent of all the food produced in the U.S. is wasted, creating huge amounts of methane as it rots in landfills. Food waste creates as much greenhouse gas as the transportation sector.
The truth is this: Humans can lower our thermostats, bike to work, and opt-out of long-haul flights. But eating isn’t optional. This means we need to find a more efficient way to grow our food—and we need to do it right now. Unfortunately, traditional agriculture isn’t moving fast enough. In fact, it’s hardly moving at all. A 2020 Iowa State University study found that just 18 percent of farmers thought climate change was caused by human actions.
It’s time to build a better farm, and we’re here to do it.
To understand how I, a kid who got a degree in robotics precisely to escape farm work, ended up here, you have to start where so many stories about entrepreneurial inspiration start: with tacos.
In 2015 I was working at one of the biggest tech companies in the world—a place where I thought I’d have the power to build something big. I’d entered robotics because I felt its power change the world for the better in my bones. But despite how big we were, and how lofty our goals were, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an opportunity to have an even bigger impact.
Food is often a 1,500-plus mile journey from farm-to-table, and that’s what I wanted to address in a better way, using some combination of A.I and robotics. I handed in my notice and headed on a six-month road trip with my colleague Jon Binney, traveling through California to see how automation could tackle the hardest problems facing American farmers.
What we found in the Central Valley was depressing. Water, while scarce, wasn’t the only thing in short supply. Labor was hard to come by, too. Farm work is backbreaking, and younger generations are opting out for better opportunities. And then there was the problem of pests, herbicide-resistant weeds, and the loss of topsoil from years of tilling the ground. On and on went the list of farmers’ pain points.
We started our trip thinking we could advance robotics for harvesting, weeding, or other small farm tasks. By the time we pulled Jon’s dusty car back into his driveway, I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. We were going to have to rebuild the whole damn system with automation and efficiency baked into every bit of it.
So that’s what Iron Ox is doing. Produce from our greenhouses requires 90 percent less water than its field-grown equivalents. While vertical farms look slick in marketing materials, those LED grow lights are huge power sucks—so we use the sun instead. But our farms aren’t just about doing more with less, they’re also about doing more with more.
While we’re harvesting kale and basil, we’re also harvesting huge troves of data. We may be growers, but, at our core, we’re engineers, data scientists, and plant nerds. At Iron Ox, automation and machine learning are integrated into every step of what we do. Robots weigh, measure, and report data all day every day, so our team can analyze what’s working and what still needs improvement. Somewhere in all those numbers is a spot where we can improve our nutrient dosing, increase our yields, or increase efficiency. While “Because this is the way we’ve always done it” is a common adage in traditional farming, it isn’t a phrase we ever use here. There’s always a better way.
Ultimately I want to tackle agriculture’s inefficiencies at every point in the equation. That means growing better food and more of it, at prices everyone can afford. It also means producing close to where people are eating. We’ve opened grow houses in California and Texas, with more facilities across the country coming soon. And, it means collecting and analyzing data from retailers so we can zag quickly to meet consumer trends. If Americans start reaching for romaine over radicchio, we’ll know it and shift production immediately, so there’s no wasted product left spoiling on shelves.
Who knows, someday I may come back to some of the original ideas we were working on before we started Iron Ox. But only after I’ve plowed through the most significant logistical hurdles in the growing process. For me, it’s all about feeding the most people in the most sustainable way. To do that, like any farmer, I’ve got to work from the ground up.