Livermore-based company Monarch is seeking to innovate the agriculture and farming industry with its new all-electric, data enhanced, autonomous tractor.
Co-founder and president Mark Schwager said that being located in Livermore is essential to its mission as the city is at the intersection between tech and agriculture.
When considering where to build their company, Schwager said he and his fellow co-founders Praveen Penmetsa, Carlo Mondavi and Zachary Omohundro "thought about straddling three different pieces of California."
"You've got the technology in Silicon Valley, you've got the farms in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley and Napa Valley and so, it's right in the middle of all three of those regions," Schwager said.
"You also have all of the people who work in manufacturing and live in the Central Valley and commute to Silicon Valley. So, if we can pick a site that really allows everybody to kind of converge, that's Livermore," he added, also noting that Livermore is a great farming community in its own right.
In addition to its company headquarters, Monarch operates a testing site in Livermore at Wente Vineyards. Mondavi -- a fourth-generation winegrower and grandson of wine industry mogul Robert Mondavi -- initially established the connection between Monarch and Wente, Schwager told the Weekly.
One of the company's reasons for starting out in the vineyards is the opportunity to develop careful automation strategies that won't damage valuable crops. The other reason is related to branding and marketing.
"You may know Driscoll's for strawberries but I don't personally know that many (produce) brands that stick out in my mind at the supermarket. But the vineyards have that global brand identity and that brand identity, as the world shifts more toward sustainability, has become bigger and more important," Schwager said.
"If these brands can start pushing that sustainability message and use our technology as a big piece of achieving those goals, then we can create a sustainability brand that can essentially become bigger than even our footprint and that can percolate to other crop types, whether its berries, fruits and vegetables, or even one day commodity crops," he added.
The tractor -- which has a base price of $58,000 -- is the first 100% electric compact tractor of its kind, producing zero tailpipe emissions. The tractor also features data collection that allows farmers to analyze crop health and improve accuracy, among other operational enhancements.
The company received a grant to help develop the tractor from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District as part of CARB's Farming Agricultural Replacement Measures for Emission Reductions (FARMER) program, which provides funding through local air districts for agricultural harvesting equipment.
In addition to making farming practices more sustainable, the Monarch Tractor is a tool intended to save farmers money and help resolve some industry challenges, including labor shortages.
"The machine is not taking away jobs, it's fulfilling jobs that we can't find people to do," Schwager said.
"What's happening with farmers is that they are now getting squeezed," added Penmetsa, whose professional background is in mechanical engineering but has a family background in farming. "If they don't have labor and labor is one of their biggest expenses, then how are they going to produce? And once they miss a season, that's a farm-threatening situation."
"The other thing is that we want to get people away from dirty, dangerous and dull jobs. Farming, in many cases -- whether it's a spray operation -- people being near a tractor is inherently dangerous and we need to take people away from that," Schwager said.
"In the past couple of years we've realized (it's become) even more dangerous. Whether it's wildfire smoke that people have to breathe in or extreme heat, these factors are making the farm even more dangerous and more challenging to find people to work in," he added.
Penmetsa cited his family history as an example of why people often leave the agriculture industry.
"The reason my dad left farming was the same reason that a lot of people leave farming, which is that it's too hard to do on a daily basis and you make too little money for the amount of risk involved, so instead he moved to the city and started doing other jobs," he said, adding that it feels like a full circle moment to now be working in agricultural equipment himself.
"We don't claim to have a solution for farmers; we have a tool for farmers," Penmetsa said. "We want to enable farmers to do things the way they want to do it -- profitably and sustainably both for the soil health, for their health and for the planet's health."