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Startup develops self-driving electric tractors to support struggling farmers: 'We have changed the script'

"The economics piece is where we open the door."

"The economics piece is where we open the door."

Photo Credit: Monarch

A tech entrepreneur with an affinity for robots and agriculture has created a company to give farmers hope for a thriving future. 

The farming industry has endured challenges over the years, from labor shortages to pressure to reduce harmful air pollution from the use of diesel tractors.

Fortunately, technology has given agriculture the opportunity to overcome both. 

Praveen Penmetsa, CEO of the agricultural equipment company Monarch, has led the development of self-driving and electric tractors to help farmers be more efficient. He has over 15 years of experience in the industry and spent summers at the rice farm in India where his grandparents labored.

"One of the first times I held a steering wheel, it was a tractor steering wheel," he said.

The Monarch team of co-founders, including Carlo Mondavi, the grandson of Robert Mondavi, launched the company in 2018. Named after the migratory butterfly, this startup uses innovation to reduce the need for chemicals while maintaining profitability. 

"We have changed the script that to do good by the planet costs more," Mondavi said. "The economics piece is where we open the door."

Monarch's other co-founders, Zachary Omohundro and Mark Schwager, came on board to realize their passions with Penmetsa. Omohundro met Penmetsa when they worked at a Southern California car company, and they bonded over shared interests of vehicles and robotics. Schwager, who worked for Tesla, brought experience scaling manufacturing projects. 

When Penmetsa started another company, Motivo, he was joined by Omohundro; they had a goal to build and test their first electric tractor. Together, they created a small and mainly solar-powered prototype called Harvest. 

The passion carried into Monarch, which is scaling electric tractors that are affordable to farmers. The founders targeted vineyards, mostly because of Mondavi's connection. 

Farmers have often been viewed as resistant to adapting technology, but with a labor shortage and expensive diesel tractors, they are concerned with operating cost-effectively. Monarch's tractors bring that by saving time and money in the long term and lowering harmful air pollution. Simply replacing one diesel tractor with an electric one can reduce pollution "equal to that of 14 cars," according to Smithsonian Magazine. 

Monarch's electric tractors received praise from Domenick Buck, director of support services at Coastal Vineyards, who was impressed during a 2021 demonstration. The company now operates 18 of them. 

The success of the tractors comes from their ability to impact many areas. 

Penmetsa and his fellow co-founders are excited for what Monarch's tractors can lead to, especially with regard to the future of agriculture and charging stations (the company is partnering with Paired Power). Many are hopeful this technology can expand to harvesting and tilling equipment, lessening the burden on farmers and inspiring others to innovation.

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