In farming, technology’s roots run deep

Shawn Hansen prepares for seeding at Craven Riverside Gardens, Craven, Saskatchewan, where he farms 400 acres of mixed vegetables and participates in the Federated Co-operatives Limited’s Grown at Home initiative.

Shawn Hansen prepares for seeding at Craven Riverside Gardens, Craven, Saskatchewan, where he farms 400 acres of mixed vegetables and participates in the Federated Co-operatives Limited’s Grown at Home initiative.

By Susanne Martin

For such a down-to-earth pursuit, farming is a remarkably sophisticated field. Technology is part of the reason why.

An increased use of high-tech hardware and software now allows farmers to improve their yields and profit margins – and opens doors for further innovation and diversification, says Don McCabe, vice president, Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“The technology that you find in our tractor and combine cabs is equivalent to what you’d see in an airplane,” he explains. “The reality is that we are relying on GPS, tracker systems and computer technology to reduce our fuel consumption and ensure things like the best nutrient placement, input and crop protection.”

Like many other sectors, growers can face “adapt or die” economic scenarios, says McCabe, adding that tools that make work more efficient, reduce costs or produce higher yields make a material difference. 

Advancing the ‘bioeconomy’ is one area where farmers are finding opportunities to boost their margins, says McCabe. “When people hear the term ‘bioeconomy,’ they think about ethanol or biodiesel, but that’s just one aspect of it,” he explains, adding that crop residue usage and new crop options can add value to farm operations.

Producing and utilizing biomass for composites, sugars and/or energy can help farmers diversify their crop options to meet market demands for alternative materials or fuel, for example.

Turning refuse into useful resources while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also the focus of a current University of Guelph study, says Claudia Wagner-Riddle, professor of environmental sciences.

With an aim to improve farm profitability and benefit the environment, Wagner-Riddle and her team are looking at ways to advance dairy farm operations – specifically in the areas of manure production, storage and application.

“We want to treat manure as a resource and optimize its efficiency, while reducing the harmful side-effects,” says Wagner-Riddle, adding that the research will be applicable to all types of dairy farms.

For example, larger operations – typically involving more than 200 cows – can benefit from the installation of an anaerobic digester, says Wagner-Riddle.

“Instead of storing the manure that comes out of the barn in an open tank where greenhouse gases could escape, it passes through an anaerobic digester, where you promote methane production and capture it to generate electricity. Then the leftover material gets stored until it’s appropriate to apply it to the fields,” Wagner-Riddle explains, calling it a “somewhat perfect method” for turning something potentially harmful into energy.

“Although the initial capital cost to build the structures is high, once the digester is operational, it can generate enough electricity to heat the barn and the house, and feed electricity into the grid,” says Wagner-Riddle.

For smaller farms, the team is looking at measures such as applying manure to fields right after crops are planted to enhance crop production, as well as emptying manure tanks completely to limit the growth of microbes that produce greenhouse gases, says Wagner-Riddle.

Since methane is the second-most significant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and, in Canada, nearly 30 per cent of it is believed to come from agriculture, the study findings could have a considerable impact, and Wagner-Riddle says interest from progressive farmers as well as the general public has already been strong.

Wagner-Riddle hopes the aggregated data will ultimately be translated into a model that farmers can adapt to their unique situations, and be used to influence environmental and agricultural policy.

Kal Ghadban and Chris Halkai, partners at business analytics and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) company BNuvola, have decided that the agri-food sector is fertile ground for their sophisticated solutions powered by Qlik and SAP software applications. Ghadban says, “There is lot of data coming from the machinery, so we said, ‘Let’s bring it all together to get a comprehensive overview of the farm as a business.’”

The ability of BNuvola’s solutions to provide greater visibility into operational processes as a foundation for enhancing efficacy resonates with farmers, he adds.

Explaining that a high percentage of farm machinery is already robotic, Ghadban says that capturing and correlating the resulting data can provide insights on how to increase an operation’s profitability. “The information is already there, for instance on fertilizer use and cost. We are looking at data capture with feedback on where we can streamline processes or use more automation,” he says.

Given the complexities of modern farming, Halkai sees value and a need for tools that enable farmers and their business partners, such as food manufacturers or agricultural equipment developers, to translate available information into tangible improvements.

McCabe is among those who welcome such high-tech collaborations.

“We are looking at opportunities to engage with different sectors, partners and companies to look at the big picture and make sure farmers can access some of the exciting new possibilities,” he says, adding that profitability should be measured not only in terms of economic value, but also include environmental and social benefits.

McCabe – who farms in southwestern Ontario and proudly states that he drinks the water and eats the food that comes from his land – believes that technology is a key to helping him and other growers farm sustainably and protect the environment.

He encourages tech-savvy individuals to get involved in farming. Noting that a strong educational background and know-how in technology, computer science and marketing are useful complements to traditional farming skills, McCabe says, “There are plenty of opportunities in agriculture – a new generation of farmers is creating a new reality now.”