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The Tesla of the cornfield: Self-driving tractors may be coming to Ohio fields soon

A green tractor moves through a field without a driver behind the steering wheel.
John Deere
John Deere's autonomous tractor was announced last year. Experts predict the technology will be widely adopted in the coming years.

Farmers across Ohio and neighboring states gathered this week to talk about the latest in agriculture innovations at the annual Farm Science Review in London, a town in Central Ohio. This year, automation was top of mind.

Technological advancements are transforming farmers’ tools – including drones that spray pesticides, robots that can milk cows and tractors that drive themselves. This autonomous machinery could help Ohio farmers amid a farming labor shortage.

Ty Higgins, a spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said that’s what makes this technology attractive to many producers across the state.

“You talk to about any farmer and they're begging for people to come and work,” Higgins said. “The pay is good. The hours are long, but they're seasonal. Nobody wants to do those types of jobs anymore.”

While automation in other fields sometimes comes with the threat of job loss, many in the agricultural field see it as an opportunity for growth. Scott Shearer, chair of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, said the rise in ag tech could translate to more specialized jobs in the industry.

“We're going to move away from some of the low-skilled labor jobs in rural America, and hopefully these will be higher paying positions,” said Shearer, who researches ag automation.

Taking the field 

Farmers have been talking about self-driving tractors from as far back as 2016. But, Shearer said much has changed since those initial conversations. It used to be small ag start-ups that touted this technology. Now, large corporations like John Deere, CNH Industrial and AGCOhave all announced autonomous tractors.

Although it’s a gradual shift, Shearer said it’s one that’s gaining traction.

“When the big companies get involved, you know that the transition is ongoing, it's active and it's here to stay,” Shearer said.

Two computer screens sit beside a steering wheel inside the cab of a tractor.
Getty Images
A 5G self-driving, self-steering autonomous tractor scans an agricultural plot.

Most of these products are in test mode, meaning a select few producers are trying out the equipment. For farmers that don’t want to replace their equipment completely, companies have also begun creating add-on kits that can turn existing tractors into autonomous ones.

Some of those, like Sabanto’s, have already hit the marketplace, but Shearer said they still need some human supervision.

“There are still humans in the loop, if you will, but they become more monitors of progress of the equipment,” he said.

Family farms

There’s still uncertainty around how much a fully autonomous tractor will cost producers once they hit the market. But, Shearer said he foresees the technology will be accessible for small farms as well as large operations.

Shearer said by removing humans from the mix, ag machinery can get smaller. Once you remove the farmer from the tractor, you can remove the comfort features designed for operators. He said that bodes well for family farms.

“Because you're not necessarily going to have to have a lot of acres to justify owning some of this equipment,” Shearer said.

“People still picture the pitchfork and the red barn. It's not like that anymore. We are in the future in agriculture.”
Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau

Around 97% of Ohio’s farms are family farms, Higgins said. (The Ohio Secretary of State's office puts that figure closer to 90%.) So, making this technology affordable is paramount to its success in the state. Still, Higgins said he’s heard interest from a lot of Ohioans who are curious about the machinery.

“This is very possible. You're going to see a tractor, in the middle of a field, without a driver on it doing everyday tasks,” he said.

Infrastructure challenges

Although it’s possible for tractors to drive themselves, they need internet connectivity to do so. With many parts of rural Ohio still without access to broadband, it’s a major roadblock to the technology being adopted.

“We still have a lot of miles to cover and a lot of rural parts of Ohio to cover with rural broadband in order to make this type of technology successful,” Higgins said.

Higgins is hopeful, though. He said, as investments in Ohio’s broadband grow, so can the industry's adoption of autonomy. He said farmers have always been on the cutting-edge of technology – even if they’re not always recognized for it.

“People still picture the pitchfork and the red barn. It's not like that anymore. We are in the future in agriculture.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.