Farm implement manufacturers, including giant John Deere, are well on their way to deploying autonomous tractors. Prototypes are in the field now, and they could be widely available by the end of the decade.
Autonomous vehicles that drive themselves may come to farm fields long before they are common on roadways.
John Deere intends to have autonomous tractors on the market and in the fields by 2030. It announced its plans at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show to develop a tractor that can take on many of the duties of growing crops — with no farmer on board.
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“I think the tractor can do a better job than I can do,” said Doug Minz in a video produced by John Deere during CES.
The Minnesota farmer used the prototype on his 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm and said autonomy would be a “life changer” for him.
“Farmers are fairly traditional. But I have a feeling once they try it, they will become very accepting of it,” Minz said.
But that acceptance of an autonomous tractor, whether it’s produced by John Deere or its competitors, including CNH Industrial and Trimble Autonomy, is not guaranteed.
Dave Busby, who farms vegetables and raises livestock in central Missouri, is skeptical. He said he enjoys working on his tractor, especially early in the spring when he first plows up the ground.
“To get your hands on what you’re doing out there. To me, that will always be what real farming is,” he said.
Busby said he can’t imagine not being on the tractor.
“I couldn’t do it. But then again, I’m past 60. I can’t see it.”
Other farmers think it could help keep the next generation on the farm. Chris Otten farms 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans in southern Illinois and hopes someday his 8-year-old son will take over the land that’s been in his family for more than a century.
“He’d be the fourth generation here, and we hope he does take over the farm someday, and right now he loves it,” Otten said. “Every day after school I have to give him a report of what we did, what we worked on, and what’s the plan for tomorrow.”
Otten said as long as autonomous tractors are being set up by a farmer who is invested in the land and not by a corporation’s technician miles or even states away, it could be a good thing.
But he expects farmers will always have to be involved, directing the technology.
“To trust the fact that it’s going to work correctly, all the time, and be able to sit behind a computer screen, I think that would ruin agriculture,” Otten said, “and I think we would see a huge issue in our food supply if we went completely that way.”
Others argue autonomous tractors could be good for the environment by increasing efficiency that could mean reduced use of fuel, fertilizers and pesticides.
“They will have an impact in terms of gathering more data that may lead to a higher use of precision applications, different seeding rates, different fertilizers, maybe even planting different varieties in places,” said Rob Myers, director of regenerative agriculture at the University of Missouri.
John Deere cited three reasons for developing the autonomous tractor: addressing the labor shortage in rural areas, making farming more efficient, and freeing up a farmer’s time to do more important things than being behind the wheel for hours on end.
“I’d say we’ve been chipping away at autonomy for the past 20 plus years, really,” said Ryan Jardon, manager of product marketing at Deere.
He said the autonomous tractor is just the next step in high-tech agriculture.
“It automates not only the driving function, but every decision point that the operator would have made,” Jardon said. “And that includes things like adjusting the tillage tool depth, or steering around an obstacle.”
While Deere made a big splash at CES, there aren’t a lot of details on an exact time frame on when the machines will be available. And Jardon said that’s on purpose – the slow rollout is designed to give farmers a chance to process the idea.
There are barriers that will shut out many farmers – namely the price tag. Deere is not releasing information on how much these tractors will cost, but industry insiders routinely throw around figures of well over $500,000.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM