Once they built their own precision agriculture farming machine, it didn’t take long for Sutherlin High School FFA students to see how FarmBot is revolutionizing food production.

Don’t take their word for it. Fair-goers can see the machine for themselves inside Douglas Hall at the Douglas County Fair this week.

The machine is designed to use multiple tools to perform numerous precision tasks involved in food production, including planting, watering and weed removal. Even more appealing to food producers is the ability to farm from anywhere with the use of a smartphone or computer.

Sutherlin FFA advisor Wes Crawford felt the open source FarmBot machine would be a good opportunity for the class, thanks to leftover funds from a grant.

FarmBot Inc., provided the hardware plans, software and documentation for the precision farming machine. Sutherlin students did the rest — building the machine and testing its components since spring semester earlier this year.

The FFA students built the modular base and did all the welding for the project — with minimal troubleshooting from Crawford. Four students spent spring semester building and learning how to code the computer numerical control machine and three students have spent this summer vacation fine-tuning and troubleshooting the apparatus to get it ready for the fair.

The FarmBot machine measures 10 feet by 20 feet and is mounted on a 9,000-pound portable modular raised garden bed built by ag-welding students at the school.

Alyssa McCormick, an incoming senior at Sutherlin High School, started working on the project at the beginning of summer vacation. She said FarmBot demonstrates Variable Rate Technology and has a lot of applications to increase production and efficiency in everyday agriculture.

“VRT is part of precision agriculture which is being used widespread now,” McCormick said. “Even NASA is looking into the FarmBot to grow food up in space, so it’s basically machine learning, machine adaptive, where you can farm at the click of a button.”

Incoming junior Sterling Foster thinks it’s a revolutionary step in agriculture.

“Things like this do have a lot of applications in the future, so we want to just educate people that may not know it exists or what it does,” Foster said.

The machine has several attachments for whatever its task is, and more can be added. There is a camera eye that can identify weeds or plants where they’re not supposed to be and it will push them back in the soil. The machine can be programmed to pick up different tools for whichever task is planned. There’s a watering pad, a seed planter, a soil moisture probe, a weed detector and other tools.

“You can add on, make it longer, make it bigger or you could 3-D print different attachments to make it do different things,” Foster said. “It’s just a matter of coding what you want that attachment to do.”

Crawford thinks the future of agricultural production can benefit greatly from the technology that is now available. The weeds can be identified by a camera and pesticide is applied accordingly, so you’re only spraying the weeds in the field and not the whole field.

“And you think about what that does for sustainability, less input costs on the producer, less (pesticide) that it puts into the environment and this is an example of the way we can access that at the school level,” Crawford said.

McCormick said the time spent troubleshooting and fixing bugs is paying off.

“The goal was making it run successfully on its own,” McCormick said. “We do certain things and it does it all by itself. There was a lot of work and a lot of coming in early in the morning and fixing bugs.”

Crawford envisions that the computer numerical control machine will be used in agriscience research, agricultural technology instruction and student enterprise projects growing and marketing through channels such as farmers markets.

“It’s not cheap,” Foster said. “But once you have it, it makes things much easier and more efficient, and you don’t have to be out here watering every day, so it can cut down on the man-hours and costs that way.”

Foster and McCormick will be at the fair all week to explain FarmBot and how it can be used.

Reporter Dan Bain can be reached at 541-957-4221 or e-mail at dbain@nrtoday.com.

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Dan Bain is the health reporter for The News-Review. He previously worked at KPIC and 541 Radio.

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