In the Pursuit of Cleaner Farming, Making Great Wine and Chasing Monarch Butterflies with Carlo Mondavi – Episode 12
By Donna LoughlinGrowing up in American wine’s royal family, Carlo Mondavi knew he would eventually join the family business, even if he took a circuitous route to get there. What he didn’t necessarily plan on was being part of an agricultural revolution as a leading voice on the future of sustainable farming.To be a Mondavi meant spending summers and autumns in the vineyards and winters experimenting with different techniques and blends in the family’s sprawling production facility in Northern California. Carlo says he could drive a tractor long before he could drive a car — which is fitting, considering he’s now part of a team that is building the world’s first smart electric tractor.Carlo still runs his own wine label along with his brother Dante. But while his grandfather — the pioneering winemaker Robert Mondavi — and his father and uncle made it their life’s work to change how American wine grapes were perceived around the world, Carlo is trying to change how they’re grown. Only he’s not stopping at grapes. Carlo is one of the founders of Monarch Tractor, a startup whose aim is to get growers of all crops to embrace clean farming.“We thought if you can take a Tesla on the highway, get it up to 70 miles per hour, and put it on autonomous mode, why couldn’t you do the same thing on a tractor at two and three miles per hour?” Carlo told me. “We’re putting all of our energy into building this solution that we desperately need and that I’ve been desperately asking for.”Carlo has long advocated for organic and biodynamic farming, and the Mondavi family has used organic methods to produce grapes without herbicides for decades. In 2016, he and his brother created the Monarch Challenge with the goal of ridding the Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast wine regions of herbicides and pesticides. They were inspired to launch the effort after learning that since Roundup herbicide hit the U.S. Market in 1974, the population of North America’s Monarch butterflies has been cut in half.“They’re on the brink of extinction,” Carlo said. “So I started thinking about building a movement to go out and inform farmers — re-educate them.”
Monarch tractor has become an extension of that effort. Carlo teamed up with a group of like-minded Silicon Valley engineers, including co-founders Praveen Penmetsa and Zachary Omohundro of the smart-technology R&D firm Motivo and Tesla alum Mark Schwager. The team quickly realized they had a shared vision for the future of agriculture.“My favorite thing about Monarch is that we all had concluded that this needed to happen independent of each other's influence,” Carlo said. “We all agreed that we wanted to be a solution for the farmers.”In early 2020, the Monarch team completed production on the world’s first fully electric, driver-optional, smart tractor that could also be a net energy producer. It’s the first tractor of its kind to offer a trifecta of electrification, automation and data analysis, allowing farmers to practice sustainable farming while increasing efficiency and maximizing profitability. Monarch sees its tractor as the future of agriculture, allowing growers to apply precision farming while cutting their diesel costs to virtually zero.“Real change will mean having to go beyond just growing organically or clean,” Carlo says. “There’s also the carbon footprint associated with farming. Turning on a tractor is like turning on 17 cars. We want to mitigate that for farmers and make their farms more successful and more profitable. And we’ll get there. My grandfather always used to say ‘the journey is just beginning.’ He’d say that well into his nineties — and I feel it’s never been truer than it is right now.”To listen and subscribe to the Before IT Happened podcast, visit www.beforeithappened.com.