February 24, 2020

The future of farming

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

Back in November, a press release from the Moscow Ministry of Agriculture announced a unique experiment taking place on a Russian farm. According to reports, researchers were experimenting with VR headsets for cows, hoping to increase bovine happiness, and therefore yields, by using virtual reality to give dairy cows the sensation of being in a peaceful summer field. The story was picked up by numerous sources, including the BBC, CNN and the National Post. Meanwhile, The Verge, an American technology journalism website, pointed out that the research was somewhat dubious, and could be a simple marketing ploy for an upcoming dairy conference.

While we can’t confirm the legitimacy of the VR for cows experiment, it is true that farms are becoming increasingly high tech. Around the world, technologies like advanced sensors, imaging, remote monitoring, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and blockchain are changing the face of modern farming. Alberta is becoming a global leader in advanced and emerging technologies for food and agriculture, thanks to a partnership between the federal government, Alberta Innovates, and a host of colleges, research institutions, large companies and small enterprises across the country.

The Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) was created in response to a call for agri-food funding proposals under the Government of Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund. Eight core partners across five provinces came together with the mission to create technological solutions for the most challenging problems facing Canada’s agri-food sector.

CAAIN Partners

CAAIN was awarded $49.5 million from the federal government, and is expected to raise an additional $58 million from industry partners.

Dr. Cornelia Kreplin, the executive director of Alberta Innovates’ Smart Agriculture and Food program and the interim CEO of CAAIN, sees synergy between two organizations. “CAAIN and our smart agriculture program within Alberta Innovates are really complementary,” she says. “CAAIN is cross-Canada and is primarily focused on building small and medium enterprises, while our smart agriculture funding tends to be more focused on academic and not-for-profit research that’s evaluating new ideas.”

One of the key promises of CAAIN is its ability to create a connection between that early-stage academic research and the development of new technologies, some of which are coming from outside the agri-food sector. That’s where Stuart Cullum, the president of Olds College, sees the real potential. “What’s really exciting is the opportunity to work with companies, technology companies that aren’t traditionally from agriculture, who have a lot to offer agriculture. There is a real opportunity for Alberta in particular to pivot a lot of the technology and expertise that it has applied to other industries like oil and gas toward agri-foods to create a world-leading agriculture technology ecosystem.”

Piloting the smart farm

At the core of agriculture’s technological future is the concept of the smart farm, where sensors, automated equipment, agricultural drones, and other high-tech machinery and software applications are all connected, giving farmers a full, real-time picture of what’s happening with crops from planting to harvest.

But creating these new technologies, getting them to work together, and training new generations of farmers to utilize them, is no easy task. Olds College began as a demonstration farm in 1913, and has been educating generations of agriculture students ever since. But as the face of farming has changed, so has the programming the school offers.

Cullum points to the launch of the Werklund School of Agricultural Technology as a major turning point. “We’re transitioning our farm from a traditional farm to one that really represents the application and integration of technology to support the demonstration of smart agriculture, and also supports companies that are developing the next generation of technology that needs to be applied, developed and integrated on farms,” he says.

Smart farms like the one at Olds College enable farmers, researchers and entrepreneurs to validate new technologies, demonstrate those technologies to agricultural producers, and educate the workforce of the future, which will need knowledge in both agriculture and technology.

Automation supplements a shrinking workforce

Canada is the fifth largest agriculture exporter in the world, and demand for Canadian food products is only going to increase as the global population rises towards 10 billion. However, despite ever increasing demand for Canadian food products, there is a growing labour shortage in agriculture. According to an RBC report, 600 fewer young people are pursuing agricultural careers each year, and the number of unfilled agricultural jobs is expected to increase from 63,000 in 2017 to 123,000 by 2020. Most of those empty jobs are in manual, unskilled labour, and are often filled by temporary foreign workers.  

“We’re having fewer people who want to do those jobs, and as a result, Canada and Alberta are losing out because we just can’t produce all that we are capable of,” says Kreplin. In order to meet increasing demand, farmers are looking to automation and robotics. Technologies under development include self-driving tractors, automated cultivators that reduce the need for humans to monitor and weed crops manually and robotic harvesters.

These technologies won’t eliminate the need for farmers, however. Instead, Kreplin says, it’s creating a new class of skilled, technical and knowledge-based farming jobs with the potential to attract educated young people from a variety of backgrounds. “It’s helping Canada transition into a digital economy and creating a highly skilled workforce for the future.”

Data grows opportunity

In addition to labour shortages, the other challenge to Canadian agriculture is land. While Canada has no shortage of territory, the amount of farmland is decreasing due to urban development. Between 2006 and 2011, Canada lost 4.1 per cent of its farmland, or roughly 6.8 million acres. To meet a growing demand for food, the United Nations estimates that farmers would need to increase their yields by 70 per cent without additional land or water. Automation is part of the puzzle, but the second piece lies in data.

At the Olds College Smart Farm, soil sensors precisely measure the moisture, temperature and pH balance of the soil, while drones equipped with multispectral cameras take detailed images that capture details invisible to the human eye. GPS and yield monitors attached to combines gather data that helps generate detailed yield maps. All this data can then be utilized by farmers to reduce the risk associated with decisions about when to start planting, how much to seed, where to apply fertilizer or pesticide, or to understand why one area is more productive than another.  

The next step is using the large amount of data we generate today to create artificial intelligence systems that can help predict problems before they arise. Using machine learning to analyze the connections between, for instance, soil moisture and pH, topographical variations and crop yield, farmers could then deploy intelligent, automated systems that would apply the correct amount of fertilizer in exactly the right place at the right time. By eliminating guesswork, farms would substantially increase yields while minimizing their environmental impact.

Traceability from farm to fork

Sustainability is a growing concern in farming, and many consumers are happy to pay a premium for products that meet certain ethical and environmental standards. But labels that promise humanely produced animal products or environmentally sustainable produce can be misleading. Without being able to trace exactly where products come from, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to know if their steak really came from a small family farm, or whether the fruit they bought at the local farmers’ market was actually grown in Alberta.

TrustBIX President Hubert Lau is working to change that. His company is developing technology that makes it possible for producers, retailers and consumers to verify they’re getting what they pay for. The company acts as an aggregator for data collected from every stage of the beef supply chain, from producers to veterinarians to meatpackers and retailers. “Our whole idea is to really pull together the information, and then cross reference it and make sure that it actually makes sense,” he says. By ensuring that the records agree without any inconsistencies, retailers can be sure their products are legitimate.

The TrustBIX platform is designed to create trust without compromising privacy through innovative use of data and technology. Extensive research and development has allowed the company to create a new blockchain-derived technology to compliment their mature and proven traceability systems. At its core, blockchain is a list of transactional information that’s constructed in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to alter or edit. By tracking and correlating transactional data from livestock operations across Canada, TrustBIX can establish a secure record of when and where each animal has moved throughout its lifetime, securely and anonymously. “Trust allows us to add value to food products,” says Lau.

What’s next

Agriculture has already come a long way. Many new technologies are already being used, even if they likely don’t include bovine VR systems. But Lau says what excites him most is what’s coming next.

“CAAIN is forcing organizations to collaborate for a piece of the action. And it’s creating a structure that’s going to help organizations work together commercialization in mind,” he says. Academics, technology start-ups and large enterprises all face their own challenges, which can lead to difficulty turning a good idea into a real, functional product.  “Now we have an opportunity of formally tying those pieces together.”

The end result is the creation of a new agricultural ecosystem that can feed more than 10 billion people in an environmentally sustainable way, while generating economic growth, new jobs and prosperity in Alberta and across Canada.