“A lot of people don’t realize how severe the farm labor problem is. There is a misconception about agriculture that if someone quits or is let go, farms have a long line of workers ready to replace them. This couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Igino Cafiero.
“Skilled, dependable, safe equipment operators are hard to come by.”
Luckily, entrepreneurs like Cafiero are helping farmers overcome the labor shortage.
“Our solution is compelling: we are more productive, lower cost, and safer than human operations,” he says of Bear Flag Robotics, the company he cofounded with Aubrey Donnellan. [Disclosure: Bear Flag is an AgFunder portfolio company; AgFunder is the parent company of AFN.]
The Sunnyvale-based startup today announced a $7.9 million seed round extension led by True Ventures. The funding comes two years after it raised a $4.6 million seed tranche from AgFunder, Graphene Ventures, D20, and Green Cow VC. This brings the startup’s total funding to $12.5 million.
Bear Flag’s autonomous tractors are piloted by a team of human supervisors who can operate the vehicles from a handheld device or a control room. The software does the heavy lifting of collecting information about each field, allowing the startup to harvest additional analytics that can boost growers’ performance next season.
The tractors can be either leased or purchased outright. If the user opts for a lease, they are charged on a per-acre basis.
“One major advantage of Bear Flag is that we can leverage the top operators at a farm by empowering them to operate many machines at once,” Cafiero says.
A unique aspect of Bear Flag’s approach compared to other autonomous farm vehicle makers is its ability to “up-fit” existing equipment, he adds, viewing this as a more direct route to delivering on-farm value. Competitors like Solectrac and Dot Technology, for example, offer complete autonomous machines that are intended to replace, rather than upgrade, traditional tractors.
Some of Bear Flag’s existing customers include vegetable and commodity growers in Arizona and California, many of whom will be heading into their second season using the technology. The seed round extension was largely motivated by a desire to make sure the startup can service their needs following encouraging customer proof points, Cafiero says.
The funding will specifically be used to increase the number of autonomous tractors in its fleet, and to make new engineering hires.
As is the case with most farmer circles, word of mouth has been Bear Flag’s most promising way to find new clients. Now that it is making a name for itself, however, that approach is changing.
“As we continue to scale and have the ability to serve a broader swath of customers we are increasing our media presence. That being said, coffee shop conversations are still our strongest endorsement,” Cafiero says.
“When folks know that their neighbor down the road is having success with Bear Flag, we’ll usually get a call from them.”