Jaron Hinkley ticks off his goals for his company, Barn Owl Drone Services. And they’re hardly modest ones.
“Solve climate change, bridge the urban-rural divide and help farmers get more sleep,” he says. “So, basically, save the world.”
Hinkley founded the company in 2017 with his sister, Sarah Hinkley, and her husband, Bryan Stafford, to bring the benefits of drone systems and robot technologies to agriculture. Jaron had previously worked with those systems in the mining industry.
“I had all these nerd powers from working in the mining industry and I said let’s start a business and they said OK,” Jaron says. He says the three of them are a case of “one plus one plus one equals four.”
“I’ve got a lot of wild ideas, and Sarah and Bryan have been really awesome at helping me structure things and get everything together and happen in real life.”
Barn Owl Drone Services is based in La Junta; Jaron lives there while Sarah and Stafford live in Colorado Springs. (The two married a month before filing the paperwork to start the company.) All three have worked in the restaurant industry; now instead of dealing with the table side of farm to table, they’re working on the other end.
“We didn’t know anything about agriculture at the time,” Jaron says. But after talking with farmers and taking “a crazy deep dive into the industry,” he says they’ve learned a lot. “Not everything, but we know now how we can be beneficial and how to make a huge difference for a lot of people.”
Crop monitoring, mapping and soil testing are just a few of Barn Owl’s services. “We use our system to help farmers create better outcomes,” Sarah says, from an increased yield to reduced water use.
“We customize everything for each individual farm,” Stafford says. “We start all of those conversations with, ‘What problems are you having, how can we help you better your bottom line?'”
Barn Owl also offers services specific to the growing hemp industry, such as detection and removal of male hemp plants in the field. In the battle of the sexes, it’s the unpollinated female hemp plant that is desired in terms of CBD content.
The company recently received a boost as the winner of a $4,000 “Growth Grant.” It was one of three companies nationwide to receive the grants, bestowed by the National Association of the Self-Employed and sponsored by DELL Small Business, in the fourth quarter of last year.
While $4,000 may not sound like much, “it does a lot for us,” Sarah says, especially as the business enters a new phase. With its drones, Barn Owl can capture long-range views of fields. But, Sarah says, “we can also get really close and use our AI program to identify insects and disease.” They can now follow up with a robot weeding system.
That system, Jaron says, “has been in the pipeline since the beginning really, and now it’s all coming together. … “We’re going to unleash in large quantities these little bitty units, using the information we’ve collected, and they’re going to do tasks. We’re going to start with pulling weeds and then move on to other tasks, maybe planting and harvesting, stuff that is cumbersome and prohibitive laborwise. Not enough labor exists in the agriculture markets.”
Barn Owl Drone Services also can assist farmers on the marketing side. “The story of the farmer, the community, and all involved is just as important as the crops themselves,” the website states. The intent at Barn Owl’s related barnowlvision.com is to connect farmers and consumers; subscribers can interact with farmers, watch crops grow and receive discounts and alerts.
In nurturing those connections, the trio is looking at the idea of an “Ugly Food Week,” probably in October, utilizing food that might otherwise be left in the fields because it is too big or misshapen. They’ve talked to a handful of interested farmers and are looking for more.
“The idea,” Sarah says, “is to take the food that is left in the field and take it to restaurants, where they create a beautiful dish.” Proceeds from sale of that dish would go to charity and to farmer still struggling under COVID, while making use of food that would otherwise go to waste and teaching people that even though it looks different, “it’s still food, it’s still healthful.”
Jaron marvels at everything a farmer does.”They basically have to be a chemist and a structural engineer and a logistics manager and a salesperson all at once.”
It hasn’t always been easy, though, convincing farmers to give Barn Owl a try, Jaron says, and there are certainly farmers who are stuck in their ways. But a lot of farmers are hurting, he says, and are open to new solutions.
“Our No. 1 priority is to build trust, to earn trust,” Jaron says. Business has been built through word of mouth and knocking on doors and chatting with farmers and giving demos.
“They’re really starting to understand the value of what we’re doing and the reasons why we’re doing it,” Stafford says. “It’s been a grind, but it’s cool to be where we’re at now.”
One challenge for the company, Jaron says, is much of what they’re doing is new: finding a need, solving that problem with current resources and making that solution portable and affordable. They’re employing what he calls unified imagery theory, “a nerd play on the unified field theory” that, in physics, seeks to combine the fundamental forces of nature into a single theory.
“We have the ability see the very large and the very small on the farm,” he says, “and then we can turn that data into actionable information for the farmer. A lot of companies do use drones or pull bits of information like ours, but I don’t think anybody is doing what we’re doing. …
“Basically we’re inventing something new every day for a new person. We’re getting pretty good at it.”