The past three growing seasons were heavily affected by external challenges and disruptions; COVID, labour issues, weather events which some believe are related to longer-term climate change, and supply chain disruptions and inflation associated with the conflict in Ukraine all played a part. But, one factor continues to drive productivity in the Canadian agriculture industry: the relentless advances made possible by technology and innovation.
Farmers, often perceived by the general public as living in an idyllic, slow-moving rural environment, are actually among the leaders within the Canadian business sector in seeking out and deploying productivity and profitability-enhancing tools and techniques. (A visit to a 21st-century farm is an eye-opening experience if you’ve never been!) And with fewer farmers than ever and less land dedicated to farming, adopting these production-enhancing technologies is now an imperative, not an option.
The 2021 Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farms in Canada dropped by 1.9% from 2016 (193,492 farms) to 2021 (189,874 farms). This decrease is associated with a 3.5% decline in the number of farm operators reported from the previous census. In 2016, there were 271,935 farm operators, and by 2021, the number had dropped to 262,455, or just 1.7 percent of the Canadian workforce.
A recent report from KPMG entitled The AgTech Revolution points out that at the same time, the agricultural technology sector is growing exponentially and, by 2025, is expected to be a US $729.5-billion industry globally.
The report contends that at its core, AgTech is about reinventing and reimagining how today’s farms are operated, bringing together software, process transformation, and analytics to generate efficiencies — think more output with fewer people and a smaller land base — all with an eye on environmental sustainability.
Robotics leads the way in agricultural innovation
As we noted last year, advancements in robotic technologies are quickly finding their way to the farm. Leading the way are dairy farms, where DairExNet estimates there are almost 40,000 robotic milking systems in place globally. These fully automated units literally replace the need for humans to milk the cows, not only saving wear and tear on knees and shoulders but also providing labour savings of up to 29 percent and enhanced data collection opportunities.
Other examples of robotics in ag include drones for applying crop protection products, field scouting, and nutrient management; self-driving tractors and equipment; automated feeding systems for livestock; and greenhouse watering and input application systems.
Information and data technologies are a game-changer
At the heart of the tech revolution in agriculture are information and data technologies. For example, telecom giant Telus has entered the Canadian ag space in a big way, seeking to “deliver actionable digital solutions and data insights that connect the global supply chain, driving more efficient production processes and improving safety, quality, and sustainability of outputs, all in a way that’s traceable and clear to the end consumer.”
And the so-called “Internet of Things,” or IoT, promises to revolutionize many aspects of agriculture, from livestock feeding, handling, geofencing and even animal health to crop monitoring and management, fully automated ‘smart’ greenhouses, and ever more powerful drones.
The future is techie
According to the KPMG report, Canada has at least 166 start-ups focused on AgTech. And while the Canadian government is investing in the sector, we remain well behind some of our global competitors. Israel, for example, has a significant lead when it comes to agri-food tech start-ups; its civilian R&D budget is, in fact, higher than that of any European country.
Beyond government, the investment community is tweaking to the upside the Canadian AgTech sector provides. Firms like RH Accelerator and Ag Capital Canada provide mentorship, networking and investment capital to start-ups and early-stage tech enterprises.
For Canadian AgTech, the future’s so bright it seems that we’ll have to wear shades. Or — maybe more appropriately — Metaverse headsets!