James Johnson, a fourth generation farmer, has been learning about regenerative agriculture for over 15 years, inspiring him to bring new technology and biological amendments to Carzalia Valley Produce, the 3,100-acre farm James co-owns and manages near Columbus, New Mexico. With profits plateauing, he was desperate to find new ways of farming to increase income and decrease inputs. This path led him to experiment with cover crops and compost and settle on applied biology and mechanical weeding to help him transition more acres of onions into organic production so he could capture that organic premium and practice an agriculture that he can feel good about.
Not only were profits dropping with conventional practices and some of his earlier attempts with regenerative practices like compost, but James began to see the truth about the damage herbicides could inflict on the land. He acknowledges he’s a recovering glypho-holic. He still uses some herbicides on his field, but he’s working toward giving it all up. The motivation to stop herbicide use came one day when he had some hemp tested after the field had lain fallow for 10 years. It tested positive for glyphosate even though he had been told that the half-life of glyphosate is 14 days. That realization about just how much the glyphosate was affecting soil health for multiple years, spurred James to make some drastic changes in their practices, particularly in the last three years with Carbon Robotics’ LaserWeeder.
In December 2018, James got a call from an Idaho producer asking if James had weeds in his onions because some guy was working on a new weed control technology. James agreed to see him, and Paul Mikesell, now CEO of Carbon Robotics, came down. James and Paul bonded over lunch, and after hearing Paul’s vision, James assumed he’d see some technology come out in about 10 years. In 2019, Carbon Robotics had a model ready for trialing on the Johnsons’ farm.
This self-driving weeder, weighing 9,500 pounds, can clear 15-20 acres/day using a combination of laser technology, GPS and artificial intelligence to kill 100,000 weeds per hour. The LaserWeeder uses 22 gallons of diesel in 20 hours The artificial intelligence in the onboard computer allows the machine to determine the weeds from the crops and hit the weeds from different angles.
The LaserWeeder trial was successful enough that James how has the fourth version of the Laser Weeder on order. He figures it will take three years to recoup the investment. He was so impressed with Carbon Robotics that he has invested in the team as well as the equipment. “I like how they interact and push each other,” says James. “I got to watch the development from year to year. The equipment is built to last. The laser tubes need to be changed yearly, but they are not an expensive component. There will also be the need for computer upgrades. But figuring all those factors, I’m looking for five years of service minimum with two years of profitability. To make it worthwhile to invest in this kind of equipment you would need at least 1,000 acres+. But the technology is evolving rapidly and they are even working on equipment for small scale market gardens.”
James acknowledges that the LaserWeeder is not a 100% replacement for cultivation and hand weeding. “I think of it as an 80% replacement,” says James. “Timing is paramount because the LaserWeeder is far more efficient for smaller weeds. If you hit it too late, the weed can fork instead of being killed. The LaserWeeder is best for plants that are ½ to 1 inches tall, when they have two leaves. The 2022 model is 80 inches wide with eight lasers and it is able to target a single weed with multiple lasers.”
It was with this equipment that James gained the confidence to transition more of his onion fields into organic production. “We work to be a 100% regenerative farm,” says James. “The LaserWeeder facilitated weaning us off tillage and herbicide. Right now we are just using it for onions, but they are trialing it on organic chile peppers and cotton. We grow both organic and conventional onions. We have been around 10-15% organic, but we are ramping up to get to be 50-60% organic. We are in month 20 of no fungicide, insecticide, and herbicide on this land. Our plan is to increase production on fallow lands as well.”
James notes that they have been able to reduce compaction by managing the moisture, but with a short weeding window for the Laser Weeder, there is some challenge since the weeds come right after the moisture. They use a subsurface drip so it is a little easier to control the moisture. While James has used cover crops such as rye, barley, oats, triticale, as well as multi-species covers that included legumes and broadleaves since 2009, the dry climate creates a challenge to get a good crop and spend water on growing the covers.
“I’ve seen a lot of change since we got rid of chemical input,” says James. “The weed pressure reduced because of the covers. We would normally have 2,200-2300 acres all in covers, but this is year is so dry we cut back to 400 acres.” That’s why James has turned to applied soil biology as a way to boost soil health and function and not be so dependent on cover crops which are dependent on a fickle water cycle.
James’ soil consultant service is Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA), founded by John Kempf. James purchases products like Rejuvenate™, Spectrum™, and Seashield™ that produce increased yield and decrease weed pressure at a fraction of the cost that synthetic fertilizers and herbicides cost. “Given the prices of input these days, the applied biology is the best choice for us,” says James. “With phosphorus at $1,100/ton that’s $200/acre. Then there’s another potential $200/acre for nitrogen. We’ve saved $300,000 in the chemicals we don’t have to buy anymore. With cover crops and irrigation, the cost for covers was $75-80/acre. With the applied biology the costs are less than $40/acre, and we don’t have to worry about terminating a cover crop.” Carbon Robotics also says they are saving farmers an average of 80% of the weeding bills with the LaserWeeder. As always, scale is a critical factor for this kind of equipment.
James said they are considering adding livestock to increase soil fertility but they are exploring a lot of changes right now so they are taking it slow. He said his dad is on board with the applied biology because he saw the changes right away. The first time they sprayed the biology, the sprayer wasn’t working for the first couple of acres, so they were able to come back and see the pattern of where it’s been applied because the weeds are much worse where the biology wasn’t sprayed. “We want green living roots, but you need water to grow those plants,” says James. “In New Mexico we have to be mindful of our most precious resource–water.
James said they did a lot of learning over the years going to classes and listening to podcasts. He learned that they were doing a lot of good things at the wrong time and the wrong amounts, or taking covers to a lignified point that didn’t feed the biology like they wanted. With weekly zoom meets with his AEA consultant, James has now put all the cotton and onion crop in the AEA program and he can discuss foliar applications, crop strategy and crop progress to dial in the amount he needs for the results he wants.
With the LaserWeeder and AEA’s applied biology, James feels like he is finally on track to get the financial returns he needs for his family and his investors while continuing to evolve the farms regenerative farming practices.
Watch this video of the Autonomous LaserWeeder.
Watch this video of James sharing more of his story of why he got into regenerative agriculture and the results he has achieved.
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