Barn Owl Precision Agriculture establishes base in Fremont County – Canon City Daily Record

By Patrick Spencer / For Emerging Campus

Back to their roots

The amount of farmland in the United States is not increasing. Indeed, it went from 945 million acres in 2000 to about 896 million acres last year. At the same time, the income of family farms has fallen sharply in recent years, with a drop of almost 50% in net farm income, as crop and animal prices collapsed between 2013 and 2019. family farms are certainly not linked to the lack of resources. a work ethic and even innovation. During high seasons, farmers can work 80 hours a week. Even during the winter, most farmers still work 40 hours a week or more.

Siblings Jaron and Sarah Hinkley have roots in the agricultural regions of eastern Colorado and the western slope of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and grew up knowing the challenges their neighbors face. Even if both left the region to pursue academic and professional paths, they have not forgotten their beginnings. While Sarah was earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Texas State University, she was working at a local Chick-fil-A restaurant in San Marcos, Texas.

“Much of the foundation I have in management was laid while I was working at Chick-Fil-A,” observes Sarah, who held supervisory positions while graduating from college. After graduating and looking for additional business experience, Sarah and Jaron started their own business, 5th Man Window Cleaning, a window cleaning company.

“It wasn’t a passion for any of us, but it gave us the opportunity to start a business and learn how to run it,” she says.

It all started with drones

Around the same time, Jaron got a job as a drone pilot for volume measurements in the mining industry, which took him across the country. But when the health of the Hinkleys’ grandparents began to deteriorate, they decided to return to Colorado to be closer to them. Sarah had met Bryan Stafford while studying at Texas State University, and “we brought him with us,” she jokes. Sarah and Bryan, who married in 2017, moved to Colorado Springs, while Jaron returned to La Junta.

Jaron saw the potential of drone technology by surveying mines with them and wanted to start a business using them as a base. He broached the idea with Sarah and Bryan, and they were all up for starting a business with him. All three had experience in the restaurant industry, working on the table side of the farm-to-table equation. Now, back to their roots, they sought to focus on the farm and launched Barn Owl Precision Agriculture (formerly Barn Owl Drone Services) in 2017.

They spent a lot of time chatting with farmers in the La Junta and Rocky Ford regions, getting to know their challenges and business demands. High on the list was to make their farming operations efficient and profitable while promoting environmental farming methods. “Farmers don’t want someone from Denver or a big city to come and tell them what to do,” Sarah notes. “Having someone who lives in the same community and understands the local climate and weather gives a lot of credibility to our interactions. “

Using drones to monitor crops and map planted areas and monitoring soil moisture with Internet of Things (IoT) devices were some of the first use cases they tackled. “We customize everything for each farmer based on the problems they want to solve,” says Sarah. One of the monitoring services includes the identification and disposal of male hemp plants, as unpollinated female hemp plants are the desired crop. Another use case involves the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the growth stages of crops used to make watering decisions.

Build a fleet of robots

While Jaron, Sarah, and Bryan spent the first two years running the company exploring drone-related services, they turned their attention to robotic capabilities in 2020.

“Farmers are facing growing labor shortages and consumers increasingly want more organically grown foods that are grown and harvested with environmentally friendly processes,” says Sarah. “Over the past year, we have focused our efforts on developing robotic planting, weeding and harvesting capabilities. “

Each of the robots is 30 inches wide and is designed to descend one row at a time. Employing a fleet of 30 robots at a time, the Barn Owl team will be able to quickly plant, weed and harvest a myriad of crops: sweetcorn, hemp, peppers, beans, sugar beets, soybeans and potatoes, among others.

“We fly drones to map the terrain and use GPS data to guide the robots with centimeter accuracy on each line,” says Sarah. “They are powered by lithium batteries which can be recharged via solar charging panels. “

The return on investment that robotic solutions offer to farmers is spectacular.

“We are able to cut their labor budget in half,” says Sarah. “They pay us half of what they would have spent on labor and keep the other half. This allows them to increase their operating margins and profitability.

For the design of the robots, the Barn Owl team does all the work themselves.

“We have 3D printers and a CAD system,” says Sarah. “About half of our parts are 3D printed and the other half is metal. For software used to power robots, the code is comprised of proprietary code as well as open source code developed and maintained by an open source community. Finally, because we are able to control our own supply chain, we are largely unaffected by the supply chain issues we have seen due to COVID-19. Instead of relying on parts made overseas, we are able to build our own supply chain. “

The Barn Owl team plans to build between 60 and 100 robots by the spring planting season of 2022. And as planting and harvest times vary across different crops, Barn Owl predicts their robot fleet will remain occupied for most of spring, summer and fall. “We have relationships in Australia and South America,” adds Sarah. “We plan to eventually take our fleet of planters, weeders and robotic harvesters overseas during the off season.”

Win and receive a prestigious scholarship

Currently, Sarah says Barn Owl has letters of intent from about 15 farmers scattered between the western slopes of Colorado and western Kansas with around 3,000 acres.

“This will generate approximately $ 900,000 in revenue for us,” she says. “With this business growth, we will be able to hire staff: software engineers, hardware engineers and seasonal robotic operators. “

Getting to the point of being able to demonstrate rapid revenue growth and profitability was no easy task for Barn Owl.

“We initially raised money from family members, angel investors and several small grants,” says Sarah. But Barn Owl needed additional funds beyond these initial investments. Sarah did her research and identified a grant from the Colorado Advanced Industries Business Accelerator.

The Barn Owl team had applied for and received other grants, but nothing close to the potential amount of the Advanced Industries Trade Accelerator grant. Sarah and the team spent about a month on the nomination and presented a full pitch to the committee. The committee approved the pitch and advanced Barn Owl to the next round when the $ 200,000 grant was awarded. But there was a catch. Barn Owl had to raise $ 400,000 in “matching” funds for the grant to be released.

“We worked with several venture capital and angel investment firms to help us take the plunge,” says Sarah. “This is a very prestigious grant that is generally awarded to technology companies in the Denver-Boulder corridor. We are delighted to be among the winners this year.

Make Florence her home, look towards the horizon

As the Barn Owl team developed their business plan and launched their first services, Sarah embarked on a formal and informal education plan. In addition to finding the time to complete a Masters in Health Care Administration and Management at Colorado State University in 2019, she has attended numerous entrepreneurship seminars and workshops on Marketing, Accounting, Innovation and other business related matters. Earlier this year, while attending a Southern Colorado Innovation Link startup bootcamp, Sarah met Brad Rowland, the CEO of the emerging campus in Florence.

“We had managed everything from Jaron’s house in La Junta and ours in Colorado Springs,” Sarah notes. “Now that we were growing the business, we needed a real location. Traditional office space was too expensive for a start-up like ours, so the Emerging Campus was a perfect fit. The old music room was indeed available, so we have a lot of space for the design and manufacture of our robotic fleet. In addition, we have clients all the way to the western slopes of Colorado, and Florence gives us a location closer to them.

After the Barn Owl team set up their operations, including 3D printers, in March 2021. And as they always have, the team looked for opportunities to engage with their local community. One of the programs that Barn Owl is involved with is Florence High School’s HS Pathways program, which assigns students a Community Work and Internship Experience (PaICE) with a local company. Barn Owl’s team didn’t have to look far. One of the students of Optimum Guidance Behavior Consulting, which serves clients with intellectual disabilities and is also located in the emerging campus, was fascinated by Barn Owl’s 3D printer.

“We are thrilled to have the chance to spark his interest in technology and help him chart a career path,” says Sarah.

The Barn Owl team is very excited about the company’s horizons. In addition to new planters, weeders and robotic planters, Barn Owl offers customers a centralized portal that provides a consolidated view of data on crop population, growth conditions and rates, soil moisture, and more. captured via drones and IoT devices in real time.

“We’re also looking at other cases,” Sarah adds. “For example, we see opportunities in ranching. A potential Wagyu beef producer in Oklahoma is considering having us use our drones to count livestock, measure how much food and water are left. Beyond Colorado and Kansas, we have customers in Arkansas, Wyoming and Missouri and are confident that we can expand into more locations with these new service offerings in 2022. ”

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