Looking like an imposing block of greenery, Pasona Inc.’s headquarters in Tokyo make a strong impression there and elsewhere. If these four walls’ notoriety have overwhelmed Ōtemachi District, it is first and foremost because of its beautiful green coat, but equally thanks to the futuristic farm at its heart: Pasona O2.
Here, the farm coexists with the company; tomato plants jut out from meeting rooms, soy peacefully grows under work benches, and lemon trees enclose different spaces. In other words, when employees get into work they walk past a 150 m² rice field and can take part in gardening and harvesting if they want. The 20 000 m² exploit is spread out on nine floors. In total, 200 different types of fruit and vegetables are grown there.
But even if some of the farm work still requires manual labor at different stages, a part of the harvest is automated; for example, a smart air conditioning system regulates humidity levels, temperature, and wind intensity and adjusts it to suit employees’ needs during work hours. This also increases crop growth.
When we think of “future farms”, we think of highly digitalized farms, where machines and technicians have replaced farmers. However, even though we are still far from this we know that farmers and robots are already living side by side.
Robots in the field
Urban farms like Pasona O2 are not yet a thing in France. “It is a very recent phenomenon, so we don’t know if it will become a trend or if it will vanish.”, says agrologist and rural sociologist Veronique Lucas. “However, there has been an important trend over the last few decades in the agriculture sector, specifically in the dairy industry, to replace manual labor with technology and advanced equipment.”
It is a sector in which the researcher, who is also the daughter and sister of farmers, discovered “as a child”. While her brother works in market gardening, her parents were at the head of a dairy farm up until 2005, when they retired. Veronique Lucas, whose first diploma was a Masters in agriculture, tells us that “she spent my teenage years working on their farm; I was thinking of taking it over”.
Though at the time the French dairy sector was not yet automated, the sociologist has since noticed a significant development, especially with the introducing of milking robots. According to the French Breeding Institute, by the end of 2015, 4,800 holdings were equipped with them, which is twice as much as in 2010. Veronique Lucas informs us that “incentives for equipment purchase up to 2013 helped this increase in number.”
Another hypothesis to explain the increase in milking robot numbers would be the decrease in dairy farmers. “Milking was always a woman’s job. Today, their presence in farming has decreased”, the sociologist notes. “Men have a tendency to undervalue this type of work, which could explain the use of milking robots for this work.”
Veronique Lucas herself milked her parents’ cows. For her it was an important moment with the animal. She explains that, “today, milking robots collect data in order to track the cow’s daily progress. This means that farmers must learn to decrypt this important data in order to make better decisions about their livestock.” In fact, each cow has an infrared necklace that the milking robot uses to identify each cow and turn down the ones that have already been milked enough.
Even though milking robots are well known to the public, farmers are also helped by other technology. For example, a mini-sensor was created to inform farmers when a cow is about to give birth. Placed on the cow’s tail, the device can sense the animal’s contractions and send the farmer a notification on his smartphone. There are also robots that push hay towards cows when it is out of their reach, or even some that weed profitable crops.
Even more advanced technologies are already installed on some farms. Like drones, which help farmers to keep an eye on their livestock, infrastructures, and plots. Veronique Lucas confirms that “in France, there is an emerging use of these technologies that is only asking to be a growing trend. We are at the stage where technology fans are the only ones buying this technology. They are particularly interested in technical elements that will help them in specific aspects of their work.”
These technicalities are manifold. In March, during the last Paris International Agricultural Show, the Bluegrass Parrot – a drone equipped with a full HD camera – was showcased. The drone is able to map 30 hectares in 25 minutes. As well as its birds eye view, the robot is able to notify the farmer on his crop’s health, thanks to a sensor that analyses the amount of light that the plants reflect.
Farmers, more and more connected
Just like drones, most technology presented at professional events has only seen marginal development, but Veronique Lucas has noticed the appearance of ergonomic robots. “There are some that assist commercial gardeners by allowing them to work while lying down, which eases back tension and other areas of strain on the body.”, the sociologist explains. It is that type of Robot which attracted Adrien Poirrier. Aromatics grower for the last seven years in an organic farm in Brittany, this man in his 30s had an operation following a meniscus rupture which happened while he was out in his field this last July.
The issues with this career are tough working conditions. Commercial gardeners used to have to spend days crouching in their fields, with a bent back, to plant, harvest, and weed. Not able to resume activity, Adrien Poirrier discovered Toutilo: an electric motor high-clearance tractor. Because of its cost (20,000 EUR), the grocer launched co-funding project on BlueBees.
For Helene Le Teno, eco-friendly digital transition specialist and engineer, it is for these scenarios that the use of technology is useful for agriculture. She underlines that “[I] consider that it is more important to recreate the link between agriculture and consumers rather than massively invest in robots.”
Helene is head of the “Ecological Transition” division at the heart of the SOS group, she is also co-author of the Future Farms plea.
The head of the scientific committee at Future Farms association thinks that digital tools are the key for the agriculture of tomorrow as they are reliable, high-performing, and produce healthy foods. “We urgently need to develop short circuits” Helene continues. “Digital technologies have a role to play, notably through sites and apps that allow us to map selling points.”
This aim to get farmers to be on 3G would be a good way to start: according to the Research and Agriculture Ministry’s 2025 Agriculture Innovations Report, 79% of French farmers use the internet. 79% of farmers recognize the use of technology in their fields, and between 2013 and 2015, there was a 110% rise in the use of professional farming apps by farmers who have access to smartphones. These range from apps that can measure the size of a terrain, to apps that can regulate your centrifugal Amazone fertilizer spreader, or even apps that save and consult interventions that have happened on your land, with integrated crop protection controls, which allow users to directly contact producers in case there is a disrespect of recommended uses.
“Agriculture related apps are developed a lot, and they are increasingly dependent on internet networks, but the fact is that many rural areas do not have any 3G network.” says Veronique Lucas, whose brother is concerned with this lack of Internet coverage. “Certain farmers, those who search for anything that they can use to ease their tasks, are penalized because they have no access to internet, and to the latest technologies.”
When farmers aren’t asking about 3G access, they’re instead asking about the use of their personal data. “They are wondering, like the rest of society: agriculture doesn’t escape this reality” confirms the sociologist, who remembers a debate on the subject. “While leaving, farmer said ‘You know, I’m glad I don’t have internet access.’ “ she remembers with a smile. “In France, the average age of a farmer is 50. So if some are looking at technology with curiosity, others look on in mistrust and don’t approach it in the same way.”
Keeping control of the machine
In the end, it’s all about still being the master of new technologies. Farmers are getting hold of technologies to in turn create their own tools, just like L’atelier Paysan is doing. “The latter is based on the assumption that technology can help farmers work better if it is adapted to their autonomous lifestyle”, Veronique Lucas explains. “There is a sort of auto-conception and construction logic that applies these technologies to local conditions and individual context.”
Farmers share one another’s innovations via digital means. “Sharing know-how and online knowledge helps the overall growth of agriculture”, Helene Le Teno confirms. It seems that this sharing happens exclusively via social media, with various Facebook groups that can help farmers find specific solutions suited to their needs. “The sharing of tool blueprints on Open Source via Internet also allows peasants to collectively share the resources needed to set up technologies for individual use”, Veronique Lucas continues.
Companies like Agro-Transfer Resources and Territories are weighing in on these issues. That company worked hand in hand with the Somme Chamber of Agriculture on the farm 3.0 project, which was a digital farming experiment set in Aizecourt-le-Haut. “What technology allows us to do is help producers in making decisions.” says Marie Flament, engineering student at Agro-Transfer Resources and Territories. “We bring them tools that allow them to synthesize all the knowledge that we have today, which in turn helps them diagnose their farms so that they can adapt their strategies and even go as far as take on new practices.”
The idea behind that is that humans are still the ones making decisions. Calling on machines would be the second step to help execute a strategy. This is a push for autonomy that Veronique Lucas hears more and more during agriculture speeches. She explains that “before, we would only hear about economic and decision-making autonomy as being associated with eco-friendly and organic farming. This evolution is shocking: this affirmative discourse is spreading.”
Last June, the Young Farmer’s Union organized its National Congress based on ‘Raising our autonomy so that we can grow our resilience.’ “It is a growing worry in the farming world” confirms Veronique Lucas. Even when their not using technology, the sociologist has noticed an increase in mutual support between farmers.
Notably, she knows three farmers that work together on each other’s harvests. “One of them bought a milking robot. The other two saw him, asked him about it, and bought the same.” And because they are the same brand, farmers will call each other before they call the manufacturer.
Veronique Lucas analyses the situation, saying: “It is interesting because it is an external technology that they have never known: they have adapted their farming system to robots. But in their daily use of this technology, they are distancing themselves from manufacturers to have better control of it.”