Where Canada’s ag tech industry should focus and why

When John Deere recently unveiled its first autonomous tractor, Twitter lit up with comments from farmers, tech enthusiasts and everyone in between. Tweets ranged from those who believe it will dramatically help with labour shortages and be a game-changer to those who prefer to “sit in the (tractor) seat” and worry about another thing on the farm that will need fixing.

With the chatter yesterday on Deere’s autonomous tractor offering, there seems to be two groups
1. Those who don’t have labour issues and see it as over priced tech
2. Those that have challenges finding good help and see it as a game changer 1/3

— Mark Brock (@Cropper01) January 6, 2022

Tough to envision something farmers want less than another piece of tech and company between them and a working machine.

— Grant Nelson (@Grantimus9) January 6, 2022

I’m a big fan of John Deere and their equipment. While the autonomous tractor is innovative, I think there are other up and coming technologies that will be more affordable and provide a more immediate ROI to help farmers deliver on the industry’s desire (and one of our HGV promises!) to leave the land and the environment in a better state than before, while growing nutritious crops that feed Canadians…and the world.

Areas of potential 

In Canada, we need bright minds working in several areas to help our farmers remain profitable, maximizing yields while minimizing the impact on their environment. The industry could benefit from more research and development in the following areas:

Sensors and soil knowledge – We could do a better job of understanding our soil health. The US has done a much better job of this than we have in Canada. Using sensors, I believe we can gain incredible insights into how our soil is functioning in response to fertilizers and what it’s able to produce in terms of current and future yields. In addition, having this data would position Canada as a global leader, accurately documenting and proving the benefits of agriculture’s role in carbon sequestration.

Benchmarking efficiency of machinery – Just recently farmers have adopted financial statement and ratio benchmarking from national accounting and advisory firms. This practice now allows operations to compete and share information without worrying about neighbour competition. The next ideation of this concept is moving to the equipment efficiency and optimization level. In agriculture we have significant data available from equipment, the ability to aggregate and compare this data across operations is invaluable. Internally, we have seen significant benefits to our equipment efficiencies and purchasing decisions by comparing our equipment output to other farms.

Virtual Reality – If Playstation can design a farming simulator game for kids (or adults!), why can’t we have a VR farming simulator for our real farms? I’ve discussed this idea with the team at John Deere and I’m not sure just how close it is to market reality, but having the ability to do operator training during the winter months through virtual reality would help us be more productive in the off season. It would also offer a safe way to train operators and have better results in difficult conditions. Some of our young operators are more skilled with an Ipad than a wrench, and I have no doubt using a VR tractor would come easy to them.

At Hebert Grain Ventures, we’re a progressive farming operation welcoming collaborations and research to further technological advancements in our industry. There are many companies across North America doing great work in this space and we have already integrated some of their technologies on our farm and we are seeing their benefits. Our long-term plan is to have a four-screen management system dashboard to optimize our operation and these technologies are helping us get there.  Here are a few worth mentioning:

Crop Intelligence – Crop Intelligence is an app that collects and interprets soil moisture to model Water Driven Yield Potential in dryland farming.

 Granular – industry-leading farm management software that helps farmers treat their operation like a business, getting real time information on costs and revenue.

 My John Deere – online platform where farmers can access aftermarket tools all in one place – everything from equipment, alerts, ordering, repairs, warranties, etc.

Crystal Green –  Vancouver-based Ostara is harvesting phosphorus from the sewage treatment process.  It has created the first continuous release of root-activated phosphorus fertilizer. Its unique technology increases fertilizer efficiency and minimizes nutrient loss.

 Bin-Sense – a mobile app allowing farmers to monitor bin conditions remotely to manage and preserve grain quality to prevent spoilage.

 Libra Cart – a data management system that automatically records the date, time, weight and GPS location of each grain cart unload, providing tracking info from field, to truck to final destination.

 We don’t use these ones, but they receive an honorable mention.

Ukko Agro – a sensor to predict where crop disease and pest outbreaks will happen

Smart Spud – based out of Moncton, New Brunswick, this startup has invented a sensor that can cut potato bruising by 50%.

Harvest Profit – another farm management software tool for cost and profit tracking; this one is ideal for farms who are wanting to get into financial data analysis by field.  Since being acquired by John Deere my assumption is that the API improves all of the time.  Harvest Profit founder Nick Horob is very approachable and hands on, he loves to hear ways to improve and what his customers are looking for.

Swat Maps – With its head office in Naicam, Saskatchewan, this soil-mapping company has a lot of potential. Swat Maps has developed patented soil, water and topography maps that provide a comprehensive picture of the factors influencing the crop and help farmers make decisions about crop inputs.

How quickly will farmers adopt these new technologies?

The easy answer is…it depends. Some are more willing than others to bet on a good idea. As mentioned in my last blog post, adopting new technologies can’t be cost-prohibitive and tech companies need to consult and value the feedback of their first users.

Those farmers who don’t adapt to any new technology will stagnate and won’t survive. There just isn’t a way to stay profitable in farming today without the help of these technological advancements.

Consider GPS for a moment. Back in the day, many farmers thought GPS was the worst $15,000 they’d ever spent! Today, you won’t find a farm that doesn’t use GPS. Auto steering, the automated control of a farm vehicle using GPS information, significantly improves the accuracy of each pass, while cutting down on fatigue.

Farming has come a long way and when it comes to tech…we’ve only just begun.