Alumnus launches electric, driver-optional tractor company

  • January 27, 2021
  • By Jill Young Miller
  • 3 minute read

Farmers are just over the moon about this thing because they have real labor challenges. It’s not just labor cost. It’s labor availability, and it’s labor quality.

—Mark Schwager, MBA ’11

Farmers today face all sorts of challenges, including labor shortages, effects of climate change, safety concerns and customer demand for environmental responsibility.

Enter Monarch Tractor, a startup that Mark Schwager, MBA ’11, launched with cofounders in December in Livermore, California.

The tractor is the first fully electric and driver-optional smart tractor. It combines automation, machine learning and data analysis to maximize farmers’ crop yields while cutting emissions, said Schwager, company president.

  • The tractor is 100% electric and has zero tailpipe emissions.
  • It can perform pre-programmed tasks without a driver.
  • Or an operator can use Monarch’s interactive automation features, including “gesture” and “shadow” modes, to have the tractor follow a worker on the job.
  • It collects and analyzes more than 240GB of crop data every day it operates in the field.
  • Using machine learning, the tractor is able to digest the data and provide long-term analysis of field health, improving accuracy the longer it runs.
  • By a smartphone or personal device, users receive tractor alerts, updates on current micro-weather conditions, detailed operations reports, data collection, analysis and storage for more efficient farm planning.

For a year, Monarch Tractor has been operating on hundreds of acres on a test site at Livermore’s Wente Vineyards.

Already, it has received “2020 Tractor of the Year” in the AgTech Breakthrough Awards, was named one of World Ag Expo’s “Top 10 Best New Products,” and was recognized in Fast Company’s “Best World-Changing Ideas: North America, Energy and Food.”

And hundreds of customers from 20 states and 13 countries have placed orders for the tractor, which has a starting price of $50,000, Schwager said. Shipping is scheduled to start this fall.

“Farmers are just over the moon about this thing because they have real labor challenges,”  Schwager said. “It’s not just labor cost. It’s labor availability, and it’s labor quality.”

Factors at play

Last year, those issues were exacerbated by numerous factors at play, he said. “One is the cannabis industry has taken people who would be working outside and given them an indoor job. Two is immigration policy” that has disrupted seasonal farm workers coming from Central America. “Three is COVID. You can’t have people clustered together on a farm all day.”

He said, “If you alleviate your labor constraints, that allows you to run slower, more deliberate, more precise and to use farming practices that are not as harmful to the soil” and don’t release as much carbon as traditional diesel tractors. Those, he points out, produce roughly 14 times the emissions as the average car.

Schwager said the most valuable class he took at Olin was a data modeling course. “That has served me so well, time and time again,” he said. “I would recommend that class to anybody in terms of just working through a complex decision. There’s nothing like actually being able to work through it.”

He also has remained close to Greg Hutchings, manager of business development at the Weston Career Center. Hutchings advised Schwager as a student and worked with him on his full-time offer from Tesla “where he did very well,” Hutchings said. Hutchings later attended Schwager’s wedding and has visited him in the Bay Area.

Schwager didn’t jump right in to the startup world after he earned his MBA. For his business school internship, he went to Tesla, “a company that nobody had heard of.” In all, he spent five years there.

One of the most important things he learned at Tesla: “The speed of innovation into the product has to be there, and it can’t be compromised. And if you put too many gates in place to bring that innovation into the product, you won’t make it. … Don’t be afraid to try things.”

Top photo: Monarch Tractor’s leadership team and cofounders Mark Schwager, president, Praveen Penmetsa, CEO, Carlo Mondavi, chief farming officer, Zachary Omohundro, chief technology officer.

Introducing Monarch

The world’s first fully electric, driver optional, smart tractor. Utilizing sustainable technology to make farms more profitable.

About the Author

Jill Young Miller

Jill Young Miller

As research translator for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to highlight professors’ research by “translating” their work into stories. Before coming to Olin, I was a communications specialist at WashU’s Brown School. My background is mostly in newspapers including as a journalist for Missouri Lawyers Media, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida.

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