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 legitimacyof the VR for cows experiment, it is true that farms are becomingincreasingly high tech. Around the world, technologies like advanced sensors, imaging,remote monitoring, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and blockchainare changing the face of modern farming. Alberta is becoming a global leader inadvanced and emerging technologies for food and agriculture, thanks to a partnershipbetween the federal government, Alberta Innovates, and a host of colleges,research institutions, large companies and small enterprises across thecountry.

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 theconcept of the smart farm, where sensors, automated equipment, agriculturaldrones, and other high-tech machinery and software applications are allconnected, giving farmers a full, real-time picture of what's happening withcrops from planting to harvest.

But creating these new technologies, getting them to worktogether, and training new generations of farmers to utilize them, is no easytask. Olds College began as a demonstration farm in 1913, and has beeneducating generations of agriculture students ever since. But as the face offarming has changed, so has the programming the school offers.

Cullum points to the launch of the Werklund School ofAgricultural Technology as a major turning point. "We're transitioning our farmfrom a traditional farm to one that really represents the application and integrationof technology to support the demonstration of smart agriculture, and alsosupports companies that are developing the next generation of technology thatneeds to be applied, developed and integrated on farms," he says.

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

Automation supplements a shrinking workforce

Canada is the fifth largest agriculture exporter in theworld, and demand for Canadian food products is only going to increase as theglobal population rises towards 10 billion. However, despite ever increasing demandfor Canadian food products, there is a growing labour shortage in agriculture.According to an RBC report, 600 fewer young people arepursuing agricultural careers each year, and the number of unfilledagricultural jobs is expected to increase from 63,000 in 2017 to 123,000 by2020. Most of those empty jobs are in manual, unskilled labour, and are oftenfilled by temporary foreign workers.  

"We're having fewer people who want to do those jobs, and asa result, Canada and Alberta are losing out because we just can't produce allthat we are capable of," says Kreplin. In order to meet increasing demand,farmers are looking to automation and robotics. Technologies under developmentinclude self-driving tractors, automated cultivators that reduce the need forhumans 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, technicaland knowledge-based farming jobs with the potential to attract educated youngpeople from a variety of backgrounds. "It's helping Canada transition into adigital economy and creating a highly skilled workforce for the future."

Data grows opportunity

In addition to labour shortages, the other challenge toCanadian agriculture is land. While Canada has no shortage of territory, theamount 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 meeta growing demand for food, the United Nations estimates that farmers would needto increase their yields by 70 per cent without additional land or water. Automationis part of the puzzle, but the second piece lies in data.

At the Olds College Smart Farm, soil sensors preciselymeasure the moisture, temperature and pH balance of the soil, while dronesequipped with multispectral cameras take detailed images that capture detailsinvisible to the human eye. GPS and yield monitors attached to combines gatherdata that helps generate detailed yield maps. All this data can then be utilizedby farmers to reduce the risk associated with decisions about when to startplanting, how much to seed, where to apply fertilizer or pesticide, or tounderstand why one area is more productive than another.  

The next step is using the large amount of data we generatetoday to create artificial intelligence systems that can help predict problemsbefore they arise. Using machine learning to analyze the connections between,for instance, soil moisture and pH, topographical variations and crop yield, farmerscould then deploy intelligent, automated systems that would apply the correctamount of fertilizer in exactly the right place at the right time. Byeliminating guesswork, farms would substantially increase yields whileminimizing their environmental impact.

Traceability from farm to fork

Sustainability is a growing concern in farming, and manyconsumers are happy to pay a premium for products that meet certain ethical andenvironmental standards. But labels that promise humanely produced animalproducts or environmentally sustainable produce can be misleading. Withoutbeing able to trace exactly where products come from, it's nearly impossible forconsumers to know if their steak really came from a small family farm, or whetherthe fruit they bought at the local farmers' market was actually grown inAlberta.

TrustBIX President Hubert Lau is working to change that. Hiscompany is developing technology that makes it possible for producers,retailers and consumers to verify they're getting what they pay for. Thecompany acts as an aggregator for data collected from every stage of the beefsupply chain, from producers to veterinarians to meatpackers and retailers."Our whole idea is to really pull together the information, and then crossreference it and make sure that it actually makes sense," he says. By ensuringthat the records agree without any inconsistencies, retailers can be sure theirproducts are legitimate.

The TrustBIX platform is designed to create trust withoutcompromising privacy through innovative use of data and technology. Extensive researchand development has allowed the company to create a new blockchain-derivedtechnology to compliment their mature and proven traceability systems. At itscore, blockchain is a list of transactional information that's constructed in away that makes it incredibly difficult to alter or edit. By tracking andcorrelating transactional data from livestock operations acrossCanada, TrustBIX can establish a secure record of when and where eachanimal has moved throughout its lifetime, securely and anonymously. "Trustallows us to add value to food products," says Lau.

What's next

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

"CAAIN is forcing organizations to collaborate for a pieceof the action. And it's creating a structure that's going to help organizationswork together commercialization in mind," he says. Academics, technologystart-ups and large enterprises all face their own challenges, which can leadto difficulty turning a good idea into a real, functional product.  "Now we have an opportunity of formally tyingthose 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.