Like it or not, the farm of the future will run on technology — and that future has become ever closer because of COVID-19.
“It’s been a pretty big disruption for a lot of businesses,” said Wes Anderson, senior fertility specialist at CropPro Consulting.
“It has forced a lot of our clients to use technology a little more than they were previously comfortable with. In the long run, I think that’s actually going to be a good thing. Once they get used to using it, I think they’re going to have a tough time going back.”
North American farmers have long been early adopters of productivity boosting technologies, but the pandemic has brought a new set of risks that need to be managed, Anderson said at the virtual Ag in Motion event in mid-July.
Labour shortages, supply chain disruptions, communication challenges, market uncertainty — “it all increases risk to farmers.”
“I think that’s going to accelerate the need to innovate and reduce risk using technology more and more,” he said.
“A lot of the technology that’s starting to get a good foothold will slowly become the norm.”
That shift has already happened for some of the technologies brought to the forefront by the pandemic. Things like meeting over Zoom, ordering parts online, and signing virtual grain contracts have become part of daily life since March — and those tools aren’t exactly cutting edge in 2020.
“These last few months have really opened my eyes to the fact that there are a lot of technologies that are currently available to primary producers to help them deal with the supply chain challenges that we’ve had,” said Joy Agnew, associate vice-president of applied research at Olds College.
“There are technologies that are well deployed and well understood and well utilized that have helped primary producers in the last few months.”
Agriculture has been slower to adopt some of them than other industries, but the pandemic has changed that, said James Benkie, dean of the Werklund School of Agriculture Technology at Olds College.
“Whether we wanted it or not, this has challenged the way we think and how we get tasks done. Technology has played a big part in that,” said Benkie.
As an example, he pointed to something called ‘distributed ledger technology,’ a digital system that simultaneously records transactions (and their details) in multiple databases (as opposed to a single centralized database).
“We’ve been talking about technology like distributed ledger technology for 30 or 40 years, and all of a sudden, it’s showing back up as a possible viable solution to traceability,” he said.
“It’s accelerated some of these pieces that people have been talking about for years now. We’re seeing them here finally.”
Automation and labour
Two other areas that are ripe for a turn to technology — the challenge in finding labour and increased consumer demands.
“I think there’s huge opportunity to more seamlessly integrate the entire supply chain to improve efficiencies, productivity, and sustainability across the entire chain,” said Agnew. “And technology is going to help bring all that together.”
In particular, automation is going to play a bigger role.
“As we look to the future, we believe that on-farm automation is going to continue to increase,” said Wade Robey, executive director of Raven Autonomy.
“We know we’re getting to a point, as populations grow, where we’re simply not going to have enough capacity to meet the demands of the world. That means we have to produce more food on fewer acres.
“We have to be more efficient, and we have to be more economically profitable to make this work as we scale up our agricultural capabilities.”
Autonomous equipment “is where ag will be in the future,” he said.
“What this means for the farmer or the ag retailer is improved productivity, improved efficiency, and improved use of labour,” said Robey. “It will be a better use of the ag input dollar, resulting in higher value per acre for the farmer.”
But producers won’t be taken out of the equation, he added. Instead, they will use a combination of human-controlled and robotic equipment, as well as other digital ag tools, to manage their operations.
“We believe farmers will always have a place in agriculture, but as the demand for higher and higher throughput and higher efficiency persists, we know that these individuals have to become more efficient,” he said. “That’s where we believe autonomy will really play a role.”
Logistics and transparency
The early days of the pandemic saw some bare shelves in grocery stores and put food security in the spotlight. Technology will both improve supply chain logistics and increase consumer confidence, the experts said.
“The bigger challenges have been further down the supply chain, with the processing and packaging and distribution — there just wasn’t the capacity to shift these huge production plants to alter the way they process and package food,” said Agnew.
“The technologies we’re looking at, at Olds College, are definitely focused more on primary production. But we’re aware of and wanting to work with other partners and organizations to make sure the entire food supply chain is able to leverage the utilization of technologies and data to streamline the production and distribution of food.”
Traceability is critical to that, Benkie added.
“Canada has always been trusted from a food-safety perspective, but I don’t think we can rest on that anymore,” he said. “We really need to implement storytelling and ensure that our product is safe via technology.”
Beyond that, consumers increasingly want to know where their food came from, who produced it, and how it was produced.
“We have to start recognizing what consumers — our customers — are wanting and demanding, which is environmentally friendly affordable food,” said Anderson. “So we have to figure out ways to utilize technology to continue to produce that.”
But on the farm, there’s a barrier to the uptake of leading-edge technology — a major upfront investment (both in money and time) to integrate and get full value out of the tech.
“I think technology has value — we’ve seen that — but typically it’s sold to a producer and then dies a quick death,” said Benkie, adding some technologies come with a steep learning curve.
“Farmers don’t have time to ensure it actually adds value to the operation. I think the adoption cycle would be faster if we could prove it out and tell some of those stories of those technologies.
“We need to see the industry step up to promote the incentive.”
Reliability is another barrier to adoption.
“There are a lot of producers seeing the potential in some of these ag technologies, helping them mitigate or manage their risk, but the reliability just isn’t quite there yet,” said Agnew.
“They want to be sure it’s a fit for their farm and that it’s going to integrate seamlessly, and a lot of technologies just aren’t there yet.”
As a result, new technology adoption has slowed in recent years as farmers “watch across the fence” to see how it plays out on other farms.
“The technology of the last five to 10 years has been great — it’s made life on the farm simpler — and it’s hard to move away from some of that equipment that works,” said Benkie.
“The industry has done a great job with what it has today, so to get producers to look at something new — to go through that kind of change again — is a big move for a number of them.”
However, farmers don’t necessarily have to invest in the latest and greatest in ag tech to benefit from these tools on their operations, said Agnew. There are plenty of options out there that are affordable and easy to use for the average farmer.
“Some, like the adoption of autonomous ag equipment, have a different level of comfort and skill that’s going to be required to make that functional for a farm, but there are so many others that are relatively simple to adopt and easy to utilize,” said Agnew.
“You don’t have to be an expert in electronics or programming to be able to take advantage of some of these technologies.”