It’s easy to think of the agriculture industry as very low-tech and “1.0” when it comes to developing and adopting new technologies. On the Eastside, however, two companies have embraced agricultural innovation from very different angles.
In Bellevue, TerraClear is using aerial sensing, machine vision, high-accuracy GPS, and advanced robotics to develop the seemingly simple but ever-perturbing problem of removing stubborn rocks from fertile farmland.
Meanwhile, in Woodinville, Viva Farms operates a business incubator for aspiring farmers who want to embark on new or second careers in the industry, or tap into increasingly popular and profitable organic farming.
A Soft Spot for Rocks
Bellevue-based TerraClear aims to use advanced technology to solve a simple, yet vexing, problem for farmers
It’s hard to think of rocks in a positive way. Whether it’s the mythical Greek king Sisyphus, who exhaustively spends an eternity pushing a boulder up the side of a mountain; finding oneself in an impossible situation, stuck between a rock and a hard place; or the discomfort of getting a rock in your shoe, rocks have earned a bad reputation over the years.
That reputation is equally pejorative for farmers, whose otherwise fallow fields are pocked and stippled with rocks that stubbornly impede seed planting, damage combine blades and tires, and otherwise addle agriculture-industry professionals.
It’s an issue familiar to Brent Frei, founder of Bellevue-based TerraClear, which aims to map, identify, and remove all those nettlesome rocks for farmers through the use of technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), drones, and automation.
Frei grew up on an 800-acre wheat, barley, and beef cattle farm in Grangeville, Idaho, and helped his father on the farm even as a young boy — yes, one of those tasks involved removing rocks.
“As a kid, I was told I was good at math and science, and I ought to be an engineer,” Frei recalled during a phone interview while he worked his family’s canola field in Grangeville with his children and two sisters.
He studied mechanical engineering at Dartmouth; worked at Motorola in Florida; then moved to the Puget Sound region, where he learned to write code at Microsoft. In 1994, he borrowed money from his parents to co-found Bellevue-based customer relationship management company Onyx Software Corporation. The company was wildly successful, generating approximately $600 million over the next 10 years, which is how long Frei spent as CEO.
In 2005, he sold Onyx Software Corporation and co-founded Smartsheet, a Bellevue company that provides online project management software. Last year, the company raised $150 million in its initial public offering on Wall Street and is valued at approximately $5 billion today.
Frei still serves on Smartsheet’s board of directors, but he spends much of his time focused on TerraClear, which formed when Frei thought back to those years when, as a child, he picked rocks for his father.
“I remember thinking that with all of the automation we have, why is it that we are still picking rocks by hand?” he explained. “It’s a backbreaking effort, but it’s just one of those necessary-evil jobs. I couldn’t stop thinking there’s got to be a better way.”
By Frei’s estimation, there are 300 million acres of farmland in the United States, and a vast majority of that terrain is speckled with rocks. Existing tools just don’t do the job.
“The existing rock-picking tools churn up the soil as they attempt to pick rocks from it,” Frei explained. “This makes these tools unusable for ground that has been seeded because it would disturb the seed bed and growing plants. The cultivators and seeders that are pulled through the soil during prep and seeding continuously churn up new rocks.”
TerraClear aims to solve that problem by using aerial sensing, machine vision, high-accuracy GPS, and advanced robotics to develop three key products.
First, the company is creating an aerial mapping service using drones and satellite technology to map a field, identify different types and sizes of rocks on that field, and create a map that shows where those rocks are located; it’s accessible via smartphone or tablet.
“Having a map of where your problem is usually gives you knowledge about where to be careful with your combine, or where you need to go pick,” Frei said.
Second, TerraClear is developing semi-autonomous rock-picking equipment that can be mounted to a tractor or combine, and reaches down to pluck rocks from the soil and drop them into a bucket on the vehicle.
“You will still have a driver, but as you move along, the computer says, ‘Hey, that’s a rock,’ and the computer picks it for you,” Frei explained. “There isn’t a human being involved in grabbing a rock and throwing it into a bucket.”
Finally, the company’s long-term goal is to build a totally autonomous rock-picking vehicle.
“You simply draw a geofence around an area, or you give the vehicle the map that was generated from the air, and you say, ‘Follow this route, and pick up all the rocks that are, say, 10-inches wide or bigger,’ and the machine will go do that autonomously.”
Since its founding in December 2017, TerraClear has raised $12 million in venture funding, including funds from Madrona Venture Group in Seattle. The company has 18 full-time employees. TerraClear has an office in Bellevue that houses a small lab, as well as engineering and administrative staff, and an indoor machine shop and testing facility in Grangeville.
Earlier this year, TerraClear president Trevor Thompson rented an RV and spent three weeks visiting farmers in Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, and the Dakotas to share information about TerraClear and receive feedback from farmers that will help to hone the development and practical applications of TerraClear’s products.
“It was just great to meet farmers while they were out working, and to kind of learn from their perspectives,” Thompson explained.
This fall, TerraClear is expected to partner with farmers in Idaho to test prototypes of the mapping and rock-picking equipment.
“There’s something refreshing about identifying a problem that is really annoying for people, and then starting from the ground up to try to solve that,” Thompson said. “That is one of the things I enjoy about what we are doing here.”
Nonprofit Viva Farms offers opportunities for careers in agriculture
Lukasz Czerwinski has spent the past 20 years working for nonprofit organizations, such as the Peace Corps and Population Services International, and living in remote locations, such as Africa and India.
Recently, however, he developed an interest in the indoor cultivation of organic mushrooms and microgreens, such as radishes and pea shoots. The interest was so acute that he decided to reach out to Viva Farms to learn about how to change careers and start his business.
Founded in 2009, nonprofit Viva Farms helps people like Czerwinski forge new or second careers in the agriculture industry by offering a seven-to-eight-month Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture at two farms it operates: adjacent 33- and 45-acre spreads in Skagit County and, since 2016, a 10-acre spread in the King County city of Woodinville.
“I just want to do something else,” Czerwinski, 40, explained. “(I want to) see what happens, and figure out if I am interested in (farming), do I like it, and see if I will be able to make a living at it.”
When you think of Eastside business incubators, you might think of tech-centric organizations that help aspiring entrepreneurs launch their next startup companies. In fact, Viva Farms is not much different, other than the fact that its aspiring entrepreneurs work with soil, not silicon chips.
Czerwinski spends a minimum of six hours per week on the Woodinville farm learning about crop planting, soil science, and irrigation while receiving technical assistance from knowledgeable Viva Farms staff.
This summer, 25 students participated in the program — nine in King County, and 16 in Skagit County.
Students can enroll in the program independently, or through Skagit Valley College or Seattle Central College to earn college credit. The cost to complete the practicum program is less than $650 for noncredit students (students earning college credit may be required to pay additional tuition-related fees to their respective colleges).
“The students are entirely responsible for the upkeep, maintenance, planting, weeding, hoeing, watering — the whole nine yards,” said Andrew Christian Ely, farm and education manager at Viva Farms King County, which is located in Woodinville, near the end of a long, gravel road, and surrounded by wineries, forestland, and other farms. While Ely spoke about Viva Farms, Czerwinski and another student knelt alongside rows of carrots, kale, zucchini, cucumbers, squash, basil, and legumes to pull weeds and maintain the vegetation. “We encourage people to learn what their niche is, start their own businesses, and make it an opportunity with upward mobility. They can take that knowledge, apply it elsewhere, and help us create a sustainable, just, and local food economy that nourishes everybody.”
Once a student completes the practicum program, she has an opportunity to participate in Viva Farms’ Farm Business Incubator, which provides access to land, infrastructure and equipment, wholesale and retail market outlets, and even capital.
Viva Farms has 15 full-time employees and operates on an annual budget of approximately $1.5 million. Roughly two-thirds of its budget comes from grants from organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the King Conservation District, while roughly one-third of its budget comes from selling its produce wholesale to local food co-ops and grocery stores, as well as participant fees and donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals.
As for Czerwinski’s prospects as a future commercial farmer and small-business owner in the agriculture industry, Ely, the farm and education manager at Viva Farms King County, is optimistic about his student’s odds.
“He’s been inspired, and he has really appreciated the networking that Viva Farms has allowed him to do,” Ely said. “He’s always asking for resources and more ways to expand his knowledge, to get to know people working in the area’s agriculture.”
Czerwinski said he plans to produce enough microgreens to fill 200 10- by 10-inch flats at a time, and all grown in an indoor, 350-square-foot space he is building at his home in West Seattle. He estimates the costs to produce a single flat to be about $5, with the revenue generated about $20 to $30 per flat.
“I really want to bet on myself and give (farming) a shot,” he added.