Praveen Penmetsa: Founder & CEO of Monarch Tractor – Ep. 92

About Praveen Penmetsa & Monarch Tractor:

Praveen Penmetsa is the CEO of Monarch Tractor, all-electric, driverless tractors that are going to revolutionize the way all commercial farming takes place.

The importance of Praveen’s work cannot be overstated, the very future of humanity depends on developing smarter solutions to manage our farmland. Praveen has gotten over 80 million dollars in funding for his company, and his personal story is so inspiring.

Learn how he left India to come to the US, where his talent for engineering led to him building a number of exciting products, ultimately creating his game-changing new company that will change how farming takes place around the world. When you learn what these tractors can do, you’ll be as blown away as I was. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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2:12 – “I’ve been very fortunate in having an opportunity to work on everything from electric cars, electric skateboards, all the way to electric autonomous aircraft. But one thing that has come to the realization is that this tractor that we’re working on is the most important project that I have ever worked on. And not only that, I believe that the tractor is actually the most important vehicle on the planet.” 

2:53 – “My journey has taken me through meeting a lot of exciting people, companies, board start-ups as well as large companies. And then eventually I found my life coming back to a full circle because I come from a long generation of rice farmers back in India who got the fast car bug and moved to America…in order to come back to that full circle and work with farmers again here is something that I think my dad is also very proud of.” 

6:45 – “One pushback that we are not getting is from the farmers. We have gotten universal endorsement from everybody from farm owners to the tractor drivers themselves, because if you actually drove a tractor in these fruits and vegetables farms, you’re exposed to the chemicals, you’re exposed to the harsh weather. Like in California and central California farms, the tractor drivers have to be inside these hot cabs working from very often like 4 a.m. to like all the way to sundown and sometimes all night operations…So the farmers have been incredibly supportive.” 

8:52 – “Until we actually showcased it, brought people over and showed them the tractor, and literally had some of the most influential people in the ag [agricultural] world kick the tires off our tractor, people did not believe it was possible. People even said that electric tractors were not possible. So the fact that we built a small, smart electric tractor that almost any farmer in the world can afford and deploy on their farm was game changing at that point….farmers see it, big ag equipment companies see it….we have been able to change the mindset of some of these ag equipment companies, which is our biggest impact to date.” 

10:50 – “My key point to all of us is we all should care about where our food comes from and how it’s grown. These days we care a lot about the delivery system, right? We’re constantly checking on our DoorDash… and when are we going to get the food? But we have no insight into how the food was actually grown on the farm…Those same cameras that we talked about are going to allow you and me to see how the food that we purchased was grown throughout the cycle.” 

16:05 – “A few months ago, I was in India and it was amazing. I was going through this farmer’s market at night…and there’s this small farmer – he just had like two bowls of fruit there. And he had a small tag up on top with a QR code on it for payment…That’s a great example of how technology is touching the smallest of farmers, allowing them to be more efficient… suddenly he can sell his produce directly to the consumer instead of to three other middlemen. So technology platforms are immensely powerful, and we see our tractor as one of those platforms that is going to help the farmer and help the consumer, and provide benefits for both.”

17:48 – “One tractor is equal to 14 cars worth of emissions…If you deploy one Monarch electric tractor, it’s equal to removing 14 compact cars worth of emissions from the road…Our tractor can save in California roughly $3000–$5000 just in diesel savings…our tractor can work for a full day of operations – that’s like 9 hours – without needing to recharge for most farm operations…You can swap out a really big battery on a tractor – a single person can, even you – in under 10 minutes.” 

21:56 – “We should also be talking about food security. And we should make it a top and center topic and really talk about how can we, as a nation, be food secure? And for that to happen, we need to support our farmers.”

23:05 – “Due to the wildfire risk that California farms face…the utilities from a safety standpoint, have to turn off the power. What do farmers do when your power is gone? You can’t stop washing your plants. You can’t stop operations on your farm. And produce has a time element to it. If you stop an operation, you can’t wait forever. You have a fixed amount of seasonality and a fixed amount of time…So farmers for the last three or four years have been buying these huge generators because they see that as the only option…We are happy to say that we have a grant from California Energy Commission, where we are going to talk about how a fleet of our tractors can power some of these farms and maybe even power the grid.” 

28:15 – “Going back to India – thanks to USAID who funded a project called ‘How Do We Power Agriculture?’ back in 2013 – if our population is going to double very quickly, how do we actually grow the food with the limited water resources that we have and the limited energy that we have?…Coming across that I think was the pivotal point for me. And for the first time, understanding that energy was not just about powering our cars and our houses, what goes into our food. And that’s what brought me back all the way to agriculture and farming again. And just seeing the challenges that farmers face around the world was eye-opening and at the same time very fulfilling to apply all these solutions and cool stuff that we built over there. And now we’re building even cooler things that go onto the farm.” 

29:50 – “I had an opportunity to go to Japan, see the challenges that farmers are facing there. I had an opportunity to look at farms in Europe, look at farms in North America, and was able to say that all the farmers around the world were struggling with some basic elements. All of them were struggling with labor…struggling with resources and struggling with the kind of data that would actually make them more money. So being able to see that from a global perspective definitely highlights the challenge that we all face as humanity, but also highlights the…massive opportunity for all of us to get involved. I often talk about the confluence –  the opportunity has to be there, the technology has to be there, the people have to be ready for it. And seeing that confluence around the world was a big driver for me to get involved and start Monarch tractor.” 

32:37 – “There’s a sense of joy that comes from us growing food or cooking and things like that. And that’s something that all of us discovered during the pandemic, because it’s a very base level of satisfaction, fulfillment and joy. That the connection that each of us has to our food ecosystem. So just working on that I think is has been immensely motivational and that epiphany that ‘Oh my God, yes, it’s hard work, but’, is something that I can relate to. I think it’s very intrinsic to all of us as human beings.” 

33:24 – (Ross) “I recently went on a trip…so I left this bad garden for a month, completely untended to…I planted some potatoes…I completely forgot that I did it. I forgot to label it. I didn’t even know they were there. I came back and the garden was overrun with weeds and grass, so I had to dig everything up…And I started digging one section and a little potato came out and I dug a little more and 14/15 little potatoes [came out]…And they looked amazing, they looked perfect. And so I threw them right into the oven right then and there and…it was the most amazing potato you’ve ever eaten in your life. Delicious, just perfect. And as simple and stupid as that is, there was something about it that felt so good, so primally good to have done that. And that’s something that I think people maybe need to tap into a little bit more.”

35:03 – “What’s happened over the last 60 to 70 years is…One, we have managed to increase the yield of our food ecosystem massively, but most of that came through inordinate use of chemicals…we sprayed chemicals to drive the food production up. And the second thing that’s happened is we’ve gotten decoupled from our food ecosystem. The advantages of logistics and transportation is you can now get food around from all over the world or you can store it in cold storage systems and get access to it. But we have lost that basic connection to ‘Where did this come from? I know where this was grown. I know when this was harvested’…All those things have contributed to us losing our balance and we need to find that.”

39:04 –“There was a fair amount of skepticism in the industry. So the way to combat it is: we built it, we put it on the farm, and we said, ‘Come and look at it’. So I think that’s what all of us need to start doing.” 

42:26 – (Ross) “I love technology, but I love the positive side of technology. I always loved technology as a kid, but then you see The Matrix, and that was the first indication that, ‘Hey, maybe technology’s not always going to be positive.’ And then I saw what Facebook did and what Mark Zuckerberg did, and that was the nail in the coffin.…But now we’re maybe breaking through to another point where we say, ‘Okay, there are some real dangers of social media and the downside of technology, but still there are some real positive sides of technology…Every time technology solves a single problem, I find that to be endlessly fascinating still to this day.” 

44:29 – “All the farmers and the consumers cannot be beholden to one data company that’s owning every aspect of what you’re about to buy at the grocery store. Hopefully the world is a lot smarter and we will not allow that to happen, which is also why at Monarch, we believe in an open ecosystem. We encourage people to work on, ‘Hey build an app and get access to our data and use that data for the benefit of either the farmer or the consumer.’ So we’re not trying to block the data in and monetize it by ourselves. We don’t want anybody to be beholden to us. We actually want to open it up around the world. We have a licensing program at Monarch with some of the big tractor companies are now signing up for. And we’re saying all of us should form an ecosystem here and it can’t be one single company that dominates the landscape.” 

47:19 – “A lot of it comes down to framing. The most incredible piece of advice that I got, which gave me a headache that first day when I talked to this person, was they said, ‘You know, everybody thinks of breakfast as breakfast, but what makes breakfast breakfast, right? Like, what defines that?…I can make an argument for almost anything, but how do we frame it for the population in such a way? And how do we frame it for each other in such a way that it’s meaningful is just as important as what it is. The concept of breakfast is just as important as what you eat for breakfast.” 

48:45 –“If you are even lightly curious about some of the things that Ross and I talked about today, check us out. Join the movement. Come and join the company if you can. Otherwise, even if you don’t join Monarch Tractor, do pay more attention to our farmers’ needs and see if you can join the agtech scene. I’m telling you that for the next decade, ag farming is going to undergo a huge transformation and we get to play a role in that. So I encourage everybody to come and join that movement in agtech and food and farming.” 

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