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Students will find tomorrow’s technology today at ‘smart farm’

Operation will use tech ranging from drones and data analytics to multispectral imaging and AI

It’s not often you find yourself in the middle of a field with full Wi-Fi bars on your phone.

But what else would you expect from a ‘smart farm?’

“This is the classroom coming alive,” said Jason Bradley, director of smart ag for Olds College. “The smart farm is a place where students can get their hands on the future of farming.”

Free Wi-Fi only scratches the surface of what’s on offer at the new Olds College Smart Farm, a state-of-the-art operation that will give students hands-on experience with using the latest ag tech in farming operations.

The goal is not only to train students to use technology that’s available today, but on how to successfully incorporate new tech as it becomes available.

“Disruption in the industry is occurring, and it’s only going to get quicker and quicker,” said college president Stuart Cullum. “Our students need to not only know how to work with current technology — they also need to know what’s coming and how to adapt to that.”

In the past, that’s been tricky, with new technologies hitting the market faster than post-secondary schools could teach them, Bradley added.

“This is our opportunity to not only catch up to industry, but also to lead where that’s going,” he said.

The first phase of the multimillion-dollar project, launched late last month, is a 110-acre smart cropping operation. It includes soil monitors, digital weather stations, wireless grain bin sensors, multispectral imaging, precision ag tools, drones, management software, data analytics, and artificial intelligence — all linked over a Wi-Fi network.

When complete, the smart farm will top out at more than 1,000 acres and include a livestock operation. In both, students will have a chance to use next-generation technologies that will become more commonplace over the next three to five years.

“It’s about establishing practical skills for today, but it’s also about establishing skills and capabilities for them to evolve with the industry as it grows,” said Cullum.

Hands-on learning

That’s always been the cornerstone of the college’s approach to learning, said former student Nikki Szakaly.

“As a student at Olds College, it was the hands-on opportunities that we were provided with to put our knowledge to use that created such an excellent learning environment,” said Szakaly, who now works as an Agri-Trend coach.

“The skills and knowledge that I received through my education at Olds College has set me up for a very successful career.”

Technology is allowing producers to make better business decisions on their farms, and that’s only going to continue, said Szakaly.

“Bringing the farm into the digital age is revolutionizing the day-to-day operations for multiple generations,” she said.

That will be even more important as the industry grows, said Cullum. It’s estimated there are nearly 60,000 agriculture industry jobs that are unfilled across the country today. But rising enrolment in post-secondary agriculture programs shows there is growing interest in ag careers.

“Young people and even people who are looking to make transitions from other industries are seeing agriculture as a place to forge a career. That’s really exciting,” said Cullum.

“You don’t have to be an actual producer to have an exciting career in agriculture.”

There’s a need for companies and industry to have a place where they can partner in developing, testing, scaling, and demonstrating that technology, he added.

“We now have the opportunity for Olds College to facilitate engagement around the challenges in the industry that need to be solved in order for our industry to produce more using less,” he said. “This isn’t about just putting technology in a field. It’s about focusing on solving those challenges and problems.”

The driver isn’t just the availability of new technology, but the need to do more with less, said Bradley.

“If we don’t learn how to do that — and if we don’t teach our students how to do that — we’re not meeting the big-picture needs of the industry.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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