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Craig Rupp, co-founder of Sabatanto, an Iowa-based custom autonomous farming company, chats in a panel discussion with Greg Tehven, host of a 1 Million Cups event March 6 in Fargo. Rupp described how he’ll custom-plant 10,000 acres of soybeans for farmers from Texas to Canada in 2019. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service

Ag tech firm to plant 10K acres with driverless tractors

FARGO — The chief executive of an Iowa company has announced a “stretch goal” to plant 10,000 acres of American soybeans in 2019. The wrinkle is his custom farming company will use “supervised” autonomous tractors.

The company is called Sabanto Inc. of Ames, Iowa. Craig Rupp, the company’s chief executive officer who has a track record in high-tech ag business, spoke Wednesday, March 6, to more than 100 attendees at a 1 Million Cups event in Fargo.

Rupp, 53, said he’ll be operating his farming service from Texas to Canada. “We have the acres lined up and we’re going to go out this spring and see how much trouble we can get into,” he said.

Rupp and partner Kyler Laird, created Sabanto in October 2018. (“Sabanto” is a Japanese word for “servant.”)

Client acreages will range from about 20 to 400 acres. Some acres will be in the Aberdeen, S.D., and Mankato, Minn., areas. He also has acres in Nebraska and is working toward getting some in North Dakota. Initially it will only be planting and fall tillage.

Rupp told event-goers that farm tractors are like expensive sports cars -- both costing a fortune and both underutilized. Rupp has concluded that “farm equipment is the most expensive, widespread, underutilized capital there ever was.” Rupp figures that if it can be used to autonomously custom-plant acres starting in the southern U.S. and moving north, the utilization could increase 10 times -- from 3 percent of a year to 30 percent.

He envisions that a custom autonomous farming system could be provided on-demand, something like FedEx, which owns trucks and airplanes but is neither a trucking company or airline.

“We’ll show up at the drop of a hat and perform autonomous field operations,” he said. “At this point, I wish I could tell you exactly how it’s going to turn out -- a local group doing this, or nationwide,” he said. “I have to figure that out.”

For this year’s work, Rupp will drive a truck to deliver the equipment and will handle logistics. He said he’s thinking about handling the transportation issues and contending with weather and delays. All autonomous activity is in-field, he said. He assured the audience he has liability insurance.

Rupp said his clients can consider Sabanto a “Plan A,” but that they also should have a Plan B and C. He declines to say how much he’s charging, but acknowledges it varies based on strategic customers.

Curious audience

Rupp and Laird plan to stay in the service business because they think autonomous ag technology will be “very difficult to productize, deploy and scale.” It’s an inconvenient truth for the major manufacturers, but the computer hardware components required for autonomy “is a commodity today,” he said.

“I will not stand for high capital expenditures in my business,” Rupp said. “We’re a service company. I will not sell autonomous equipment.”

Audience questions were curious and mixed. Ace Brandt of Brandt Holdings of Fargo operates companies with John Deere stores in North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. He asked Rupp why John Deere isn’t “in tune” with what he’s doing, even though they’re also working in autonomous equipment equipment.

“Deere is a big company,” Rupp carefully responded. “It’s a big ship and to move that into another direction takes a lot of energy. It’s easier to build an Amazon than to change a Sears. I don’t think anyone’s heading down the path that we’re on right now, but we’ll see.”

Rupp said he’s learned about a Fargo-area effort to create an autonomous demonstration. He encourages it and applauds it and has talked with organizers about possibly becoming involved with it.

The 1 Million Cups event is hosted by Fargo tech company Emerging Prairie, led by Greg Tehven.

Tehven, who is also involved with the local autonomous farm project, said it is still developing, but he’s talked with Rupp about it.