Electric, self-driving capable tractors roll into California North Coast vineyards

Some dairy farmers and vineyard operators in Napa, Sonoma and other California counties are bringing in electric tractors capable of operating without drivers. Here are the pros and cons.|

Financial incentives for zero-emission tractors

• The California CORE Voucher Program offers up to $125 million in clean, off-road equipment incentives available for businesses applying for a voucher covering part of the cost of a zero-emission (ZE) tractor.

• The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has more than $100 million available for projects to upgrade or replace polluting farm equipment on first-come, first-served basis under a new zero-emission mobile agriculture equipment replacement category offering up to 80% reimbursement for new ZE tractors. Contact: grants@baagmd.gov

• California Air Resources Board has a fund for those who wish to scrap and replace an owned diesel tractor by applying through a local county air district.

• Potential low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) credits are also available by going electric.

Source: Solectrac

Several farm, vineyard and dairy owners in the North Coast are among those employing driverless, all-electric-powered tractors, a development viewed by some as a game-changer, especially in an era of labor shortages and goals to reduce carbon emissions.

This zero-emissions sustainability trend also includes a variety of potential multimarket tractor customers with large lawns, turf farms, orchards and gardens. Small hobbyist and specialty-crop (fruit and vegetable) farmers, municipal landscapers, nurseries as well as vineyard and grounds management firms are also interested in these tractors. Other uses include deployment at golf courses, sports fields, and equestrian centers.

While there are no comparable forecasts to date showing growth trends for zero-emissions tractors, however, the EV share of U.S. and global auto markets doubled in 2022.

By the end of the third quarter, total new car, SUV, truck and van sales dropped 12.6%, but EV sales surged 70.7% accounting for one of every 20 new cars sold, doubling EV’s market share of total new car sales in just a year, reported by Investopedia in December 2022.

‘A lot of excitement in Napa these days’

Trefethen Family Vineyard in Napa took delivery of two Monarch MK-V all electric tractors in January.

“We are teaching ourselves how to use this automated system and benefit from its ability to improve field safety and streamline farming operations throughout our 400-acre vineyard,” said Hailey Trefethen, third-generation vineyard co-owner.

On board is a system that has a 360-degree sensing and imaging suite that stores information collected within a 9-foot radius around the tractor and provides Trefethen managers with feedback from its sensors.

According to Trefethen, using a smartphone or personal device, managers can receive tractor status alerts, detailed operations reports.

Hailey Trefethen said her family vineyard team can also plug in light towers powered by the tractor for night harvesting. The base price for the MK-V is $88,998.

“This sophisticated tractor system shows us where gaps exist in our environmental protection efforts so we can make improvements — which is a big motivator for us. These tractors will easily fit within our vineyard management program as well as through our vine rows,” Trefethen said.

The Monarch MK-V is reported to be the first zero-emissions smart tractor with an artificial intelligence (AI) automation package that includes a self-driving capability (it can be “trained” to remember and run route passes in a field) along with auto follow-on, a feature enabling the tractor to keep up with workers on foot as they move forward to perform pruning, picking and weed removal activities.

With low unemployment percentages for the U.S. (3.4%) and California (4.1%) based on recent U.S. Labor Department statistics, some ag industry firms see the driverless option as one way to offset labor shortages while freeing up available employees for other duties.

The MK-V also comes with rollover protection and a safety sensor that will stop it from moving forward if it detects a human within 5 feet. It has a hill slope-holding function, a smart four-wheel drive option, along with split braking, and a three-prong hitch, and can serve as a portable generator for welding and other powered field equipment.

She said while Trefethen produces 10 grape varietals, their MK-Vs (charged by pairing the tractor with the vineyard’s solar array), are being deployed initially in the vineyard’s employee vegetable garden. The company is also involved in a carbon dioxide capture project and sells its CO2 to brewers and could do the same to dry ice producers.

“There is also a lot of excitement in Napa these days about reducing the use of herbicides by increasing the frequency of tractor passes through local vineyards using compact tractors,” Hailey Trefethen said.

'Continuous operations are possible using a swappable battery’

Constellation Brands received the first six Monarch MK-V tractors on Dec. 1, 2022. Among Monarch’s California early customers are Wente Vineyards in Livermore Valley, Foley Family Farms LLC in Sonoma, Beckstoffer Vineyards in Napa, V. Sattui Winery in Napa and Solano counties, Gallo Vineyards in Modesto and Bobby Vineyards LLC in Lodi.

Monarch tractors have been used in California wineries since 2020. Zimeno, Inc., doing business as Monarch Tractor, is headquartered and operates what has been the company’s first pilot assembly plant in Livermore producing Monarch tractors at its 36,000 square foot facility. The first MK-V came off the assembly line on Dec. 1, 2022. Some 55 MK-V tractors have been produced to date.

The company plans to expand production by shifting manufacturing to a 6.2 million square foot former General Motors factory by March or April 2023 in Lordstown, Ohio, operated by Foxcomm.

Foxcomm and Monarch signed a contract manufacturing agreement to build next-generation agriculture equipment and battery packs at Foxcomm’s Mahoning Valley facility near Lordstown. Another assembly center for east coast customers is planned for North Carolina.

Monarch CEO Praveen Penmetsa said his company is establishing a nationwide network of dealers and is developing an online spare parts ordering and delivery system using Amazon to offer quick turnaround. An upcoming announcement set for April will include details of the dealer program and the firm’s plans for other tractor models.

“Our MK-V comes with 40-horsepower continuous output with a 70-horsepower peak. Battery runtime is between eight to 10 hours. Continuous operations are possible using a swappable battery, since recharging time is between five and six hours for non-tillage operations,” said Praveen. “We have hundreds of customers on a wait list and continue to see ongoing reservations from a multitude of farmers growing various crop types. Our hope is to fill this demand a timely manner based on the order date, options desired and our manufacturing schedules.”

He said Monarch has also seen signups this year under the California CORE (Clean Off Road Equipment) Voucher Program which offers up to $125 million in clean, off-road equipment incentives available for businesses applying for a voucher covering part of the cost of a zero emission (ZE) tractor.

“We’re witnessing government support across the board that is offsetting costs associated with adopting fully electric ag tools,” Praveen said.

He said smaller tractors are not designed for large acreage tillage and plowing operations, as in mid-western corn fields where tractors with 400 to 600 horsepower are recommended.

The global tractor market is large for tractors in the compact class according to Marathon. The company expects this market to double over the next 10 years.

'Opportunities for agriculture to address climate change’

California-based Solectrac LLC is another EV tractor pioneer that was founded in 2012 by Steve Heckeroth. Today the firm is a subsidiary of Ideanomics (Nasdaq: IDEX), a global electric vehicle company. Solectrac has a 10,000-square-foot production plant on Earhart Road in the Sonoma County community of Windsor.

Solectrac sold 36 tractors by 2021. In 2022, the company benefited from double-digit growth and manufactured 500 EV tractors in two models, company officials said. More than 400 were sold, according to Solectrac Marketing and Sales Director Martha Henningan. These models include the e25, a 25-horsepower, four-wheel drive compact electric tractor with a three- to six-hour runtime offered at a base price of $29,249.

The e70N is a 70-horsepower narrow tractor suited for use in vineyards and orchards. It has a three- to eight-hour run time and a base price of $74,999. A 30-kilowatt-hour exchangeable battery pack with a 6-kilowatt charger is also available for $9,999.

Solectrac has a 23-state U.S., dealer network in prime agricultural markets in cooperation with Brim Tractor and also sells its products globally in Norway, the United Kingdom, China, Ukraine, Malaysia with a goal to ultimately sell tractors in Africa.

While Monarch and Solectrac were among the first to market EV tractors, other firms such as Kubota, Case, New Holland, John Deere and others are planning to do the same.

The U.S. market for all types of tractors totaled $23.7 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $24.6 billion by 2027, according to market research firm Statistica.

“Our zero-emission tractors are opportunities for agriculture to address climate change by keeping carbon in the ground where it doesn’t harm humans or endangers the environment,” said Solectrac Communications Director Christiana Heckeroth.

Special correspondent Gary Quackenbush (Gary.Quackenbush@gmail.com) worked at the Wall Street Journal and headed communications departments at AT& T, Pacific Bell and General Cellular Corporation; was a senior executive at several Silicon Valley high-tech public relations agencies; was West Coast editor for Telecommunications Magazine; and wrote for The Windsor Times and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Correction, Feb. 22, 2023: The name of Solectrac was misspelled.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2023: The U.S. market for all types of tractors is projected to reach $24.6 billion by 2027.

Financial incentives for zero-emission tractors

• The California CORE Voucher Program offers up to $125 million in clean, off-road equipment incentives available for businesses applying for a voucher covering part of the cost of a zero-emission (ZE) tractor.

• The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has more than $100 million available for projects to upgrade or replace polluting farm equipment on first-come, first-served basis under a new zero-emission mobile agriculture equipment replacement category offering up to 80% reimbursement for new ZE tractors. Contact: grants@baagmd.gov

• California Air Resources Board has a fund for those who wish to scrap and replace an owned diesel tractor by applying through a local county air district.

• Potential low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) credits are also available by going electric.

Source: Solectrac

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