Techno-Optimists introduce FarmBot

SUBHEAD: Automation for the raised bed garden. But will it last any longer than a used car?

By Juan Wilson on 14 July 2016 for Island Breath -

Image above: Screen shot of FarmBot software interface. Note that our experience would not advise planting pumpkins or squash in a raised bed with different smaller plant types like carrots or radishes. From (

The recent article by Charles Hugh Smith at his Of Two Minds blog titled Small scale toolmaking and farming addresses what issues are most vital for our future. They include finding local sustainable ways to do farming and toolmaking. 

I applaud his foresight on this subject. However, his inclusion of the FarmBot technology as part of the solution seems like the worst aspects of techno-optimism. The FarmBot is an expensive, impractical high-tech and sophisticated technology with little chance of having even marginal success.

The Farmbot is a programmable CNC (Computer Numerical Control) device that is designed to sit over a raised bed garden box and provide all the services of human care of plants; from seeding, to watering, to fertilizing and weeding. It is designed to interface with home computers or portable wireless devices like smartphones for remote programing, remote control and monitoring.

Since 1994 my wife and I have used Raised bed Square Foot Gardening as a food growing management guide. See (

We also used Rodale's Garden Planing Dates for scheduling planting in North East US. The rest was manual labor. (

Here in Hawaii with a 365 day growing season we have multiple crops in each section of our raised bed boxes. We have a printout plan of our raised beds with each square foot identified. We update the plan seasonally.

Little is said about the learning curve in setting up and mastering FarmBot software and hardware. My sense is that there is more needed to know about operating FarmBot to grow a tomato than there is to know about growing a full garden.

This is an expensive technology with little track record. I have some personal experience with much simpler devices relates to architecture and engineering. Since the 1980s I've had experience with large plotters and printers, including roll fed and flat bed. Some used wax transfer,  some pens with nibs and the newer ones inkjets and cutting knives.

Back in the day it was a struggle getting this equipment up and working, and once it was it was a chore keeping it going. Pens would get clogged, paper misaligned, and inkjets clogged, etc. And these problems were encountered in temperature controlled air-conditioned sealed office buildings not outdoors and subject to stresses of living environment.

Even in my office in Hawaii I've had a gecko get through a vent in a laser printer and fry itself across the contacts of a power transformer and thus burning the unit out. I've had carpenter ants find their way through a seam into a large format inkjet plotter and produce a colony of ants that destroyed the machine.

My point is that in examining the features of the Farmot, that include small vacuums, water jets, exposed tracks, electrical circuit boards, control motors and more I see vulnerability for many things to go wrong quickly. Wet leaves, dust, insects and more will get into unanticipated places on and in FarmBot and wreak havoc. And I'm not including winter conditions of snow and ice and thermal stress.

In other words having a FarmBot outside in the weather and the dynamic challenges of a living environment will quickly make it to useless.

Keep in mind, this "tool" will cost thousands of dollars and only cover one raised bed section. We have ten raised beds to feed just my wife and I. We find actually nurturing a garden by hand is spiritually uplifting and a relief from the errands and bill paying of daily life.

Video above: Promo for the FarmBot robot farming technology. From (


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