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PHOTO CAPTION: Kulan prototype electric agro service vehicle can haul nearly twice its own weight.

Can the Electric Kulan Create A Profitable Agro Niche?

EV World runs some of the numbers on the economics of operating the Kulan electric agro hauler just introduced in prototype form in Germany.

Published: 03-Jan-2015

John Deere, Kubota, Mahindra: all well-recognized names in the agriculture industry, the latter two especially in the small and hobby farm fields. And all are totally reliant on fossil fuels and the monopolistic dependency and pollution it brings.

While a handful of farmers have experimented with electrifying their tractors - the Allis-Chalmers G Model being a prime example - there hasn't been a great deal of serious effort put into cleaning up the farm tractor's act.

Enter the Kulan, named for the now-endangered Equus hemionus hemionus, the wild ass of Asia. Jointly developed by a consortium of 14 organizations in Germany, the all-electric agro vehicle isn't necessarily designed to replace the traditional tractor, but to fill a potential niche between it and the family pickup truck.

Designed by Felix Götze, Tom Mudra and Hans-Tobias Schicktanz, it weighs 300 kg (660 lbs.) and is powered by a pair of 2kW rear electric hub motors. The 16 module lithium battery pack mounted under the integrated cargo bin can haul just over one tonne (900+ kg) of farm produce, feed, or equipment. It offers a top speed of 50 km/h (31 mph) and a claimed range of 186 miles per charge. That's enough energy for six continuous hours of operation, the developers claim.

EV World decided to take a closer look at the potential economics of the Kulan. While no pricing as been set and the consortium is looking for potential partners to help commercialize it, we thought it might be useful to put pen to paper, so-to-speak. What kind of economics would a small-scale ag operation need to be able to afford something like this?

We decided to look at it in the context of a small family vineyard in California, since it might be one of the first states where we could see deployment should it be manufactured. The average family-owned vineyard in Mendocino County, for example, is about 50 acres. In Sonoma County, 40% of vineyards are less than 40 acres and 80% are less than 100 acres or 40 hectares. Thirty-six family vineyards in the county are less than 20 acres.

While yield can vary widely, several Internet sources say its safe to assume that a small vineyard will produce about 2.7 tons of grapes per acre. Of course some are higher; one vineyard claiming 17 tons an acre, but 2.7 seems a good number to work with.

Again depending on many factors, a ton of of grapes can go for $1000 if sold wholesale to commercial vintners. Harvesting this 50 acres would require 135 round trips from the vineyard to the press in the Kulan. If the round trip is one mile, the Kulan could handle the operation on just a single charge.

Figuring just the wholesale price of the 135 tons of grapes produced, the gross would be $135,000US. Out of that would come operating expenses, taxes, etc.

Now assuming the family produces its own vintage -- let's call it Wild Asian Ass Vineyards (our apologies if there is such a real world vineyard) -- an industry rule of thumb is that each acre will produce 60 cases of wine or a total of 720 750 ml bottles of wine. Wild Asian Ass Vineyards will then produce from its 50 acres some 3,000 cases of wine. If each bottle retails for $20 - again an assumed industry average for a better quality vintage - the vintner will keep about $11 of that. On a wholesale basis, each case will go for $110US with the vintner keeping $55US for expenses, taxes and profit.

Wild Asian Ass Vineyards will gross $135,000US from its 50 acres if it simply sells its grapes to a commercial vintner, actually a very common practice in the industry. In the fictional Wild Asian Ass Vineyard's case, they make their own premium wine and get $110 per case. They now gross $455,500US annually. Again operating expenses and taxes have to come out of that.

Bottom line here in the context of the Kulan is, as with all EVs, it needs to be made affordable, especially for its target market of small-scale farmers who likely won't enjoy the same margins wine growers in California might count on.

That being said, I can imagine a fair number would be interested in the Kulan as they shift to more organic farming methods. Additionally, a growing number of winegrowers are already using solar energy to help run their operations and the Kulan could easily plug into their solar arrays and be total free of petroleum and its toxic emissions, especially those that might drift onto their grapes at harvest time.

To Kulan's developers, we say bring it on, but make the math work, bite.

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