Is AI the answer to sustainable farming?

What happens when a robotics expert and a sixth-generation farmer decide to start a company together? They spend most of their time grappling with one looming problem: climate change. 

In 2020, Gilwoo Lee, the robotics expert, and Casey Call, the farmer, founded Zordi, an agricultural platform that blends AI and robotics with greenhouse growing. A recent graduate of the University of Washington, Lee was stuck at home during the wildfires. “That was just a very strong signal of climate change happening. I was already committed to starting my own company with something where my robotics and AI can make a big difference when it comes to impact,” Lee said. 

Call, who is the head grower and an agronomist at Zordi, says he’d seen the impact of sustainability on his family’s 12,000 acres of farmland in western New York, where they grow peas, beans, corn, carrots, soy, and potatoes. “My whole life, it’s been overwhelmingly convincing that agriculture needs to get more efficient,” Call said. 

Zordi, an ag startup backed by Khosla Ventures that just came out of stealth mode, leverages robotics, AI, and conventional farming wisdom to grow strawberries in greenhouses in the Northeast. Under human supervision, robots do everything from plant to harvest a unique variety of strawberries imported from Japan and Korea. The company uses AI and machine learning to monitor the growing process and control the environment inside the greenhouses. They also use robots to harvest the ripe fruit. 

Photo by Lakota Gambill for The Verge

Photo by Lakota Gambill for The Verge

Robotics expert Gilwoo Lee, a founder and CEO of Zordi, poses for a portrait in one of Zordi’s greenhouses in Vineland, New Jersey, on November 6th, 2023.
Photo by Lakota Gambill for The Verge

Lee says that quality strawberries are complicated to grow, so the market is relatively lucrative. She also said that she chose strawberries because they require particular growing climates and because they’re delicate when they’re harvested.

“If we’re able to do this and actually get them successfully delivered to the stores, then we’re pretty confident that you can extend the harvesting tools to other crops,” Lee said. “I think controlled environment agriculture or greenhouses, for us, is a very good way to feed the world with sustainably grown local fresh produce, and that was the mission that I wanted to see happen,” she continued.  

AI applications in sustainable farming

While most people don’t immediately think of artificial intelligence and machine learning when thinking about sustainable agriculture, the industry is brimming with advanced technology thanks to the need to understand vast amounts of information about everything from the microclimate to the soil pH.