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Robots are managing a new greenhouse dedicated to corn production near Marana
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Robots are managing a new greenhouse dedicated to corn production near Marana

Robots are managing a new greenhouse near Marana devoted to the production of corn. 

The Crop Science Division of Bayer opened the 9-acre site at 9475 N. Sanders Road with the equivalent of 190 acres of field corn production in a 7-acre greenhouse and 2-acre warehouse.

Bayer broke ground on the facility about three years ago because of the sunshine, which is essential to corn crops, said Matt Lingard, site lead at the new facility.

The greenhouse will grow conventional corn and genetically modified corn that is herbicide resistant and with organic insecticide so corn worms are repelled.

The company expects to be in full production later this month.

After the corn plants leave the greenhouse, they will go to a field testing site to determine their ability to be transplanted, Lingard said.

"At the greenhouse, we baby them and give them everything they possibly want," he said. "But then we want to test our seeds in the fields so they will never go from the greenhouse directly to a farmer's field."

The end user will be farmers around the world, from the midwest to Europe, Africa and South America.

The robots plant the seeds into grow packs then transplant them into pots when the plants are about two inches tall. The robots will also track information about the seeds and take pictures to ensure they are ready for transplant to growth benches on a carousel in the greenhouse.

Ninety-five humans work alongside the robots, Lingard said. Bayer expects that number to grow to 120 by the end of the year, Lingard said. 

"People tend to think these robots have their independent mission and objectives, but that's not true," he said. "They do what they're supposed to do when you're watching them."

Both the harvesting and pollination of the corn silk will be done by people.

Lingard said the success of finding local talent was part of the draw to Pima County.

"The ability to recruit students from the University of Arizona and the innovation economy in this region is what drew us," Lingard said. 

Aside from automation, the new greenhouse is built for sustainability and can recapture 95% of the water used on the crops. It also composts 100% of its harvested materials.

The operation is the first of its kind for Germany-based Bayer, better known for its pharmaceutical division. In 2018, Bayer acquired global biotech giant Monsanto.

The company chose to build the $100 million facility in Arizona — versus the midwest where corn is traditionally grown — because the sunshine supply will allow the greenhouse to produce three to four corn crop cycles every year.

"With our new Marana greenhouse, Bayer is reimagining the way plant breeding is done and setting the standard for environmental sustainability," said Bob Reiter, head of research and development for Crop Science at Bayer. "Meeting the unique challenges that farmers face requires different ways of thinking and working."

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@tucson.com or Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz.


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