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Innovation

Colorado Firm Uses Drones for Next-Level Agriculture

Josh Sorenson

Who knew that a brother and sister from La Junta, Colorado, would possibly change the agricultural industry? At least that’s the mission of Sarah and Jaron Hinkley, who created Barn Owl Precision Agriculture to assist farmers in ways not possible until recent years. With the siblings’ unique combination of farming experience and academic expertise, their company is poised to shake up the status quo of crop health monitoring all across the country. 

Farmers, in general, have had better decades than this one. The total acreage of available farmland has decreased over the last 20 years, from 945 million acres in 2000 to just 896 million in 2020. Likewise, the profitability of the remaining land has seen a series of sharp declines for the independent farmers tending to them, leaving net incomes for these farms to drop as much as 50% since 2013. 

Photo Courtesy Barn Owl

Along with workers in manufacturing, hardworking farmers are often heralded as the backbone of our nation’s economy. Since the dawn of Mesopotamian city-states, they have been vital to a functioning society. Any boost to efficiency that could widen the margins even a tiny amount for America’s farmers would be more than welcome.

This is where Barn Owl comes in.

Although the brainchild of the Hinkley duo initially started as a window washing startup called 5th Man Window Cleaning, it eventually morphed into a drone-based agricultural service once Jaron Hickley moved back home to La Junta, CO.

Since the operational shift, Barn Owl has been performing data gathering via crop fly-over runs at farms across Colorado.

Photo Courtesy Zoe Schaeffer

After taking some time to consult with farmers around the area, the Hinkleys knew that there was room in the market for a service to provide previously unseen crop information. “We fly drones to map the field and use the GPS data to guide the robots at the level of centimeter accuracy down each row,” said Sarah Hinkley. 

According to Hinkley, the potential of Barn Owl to be a moneymaker for farmers has already been on full display. “We’re able to cut their labor budget in half. They pay us half of what they would have spent on labor and keep the other half. This enables them to increase their operating margins and profitability.” An increase in return also allows farmers more freedom to focus on other aspects of their operation. A farmer who once sacrificed sustainability to make a living would now be able to make upgrades that ensure a more positive impact on the environment. 

Another advantage of Barn Owl is that the Hinkleys are entrenched within the community. Many farmers around the area prefer to do business with people they are familiar with, making the Hinkleys’ generation-spanning family history in La Junta a big plus for attracting clients. “Farmers don’t want someone from Denver or a big city coming out and telling them what to do,” said Hinkley. “Having someone who lives in their same communities and understands the local climate and weather lends a lot of credibility to our interactions.”

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