If you’re frustrated that the big names in equipment manufacturing aren’t rolling out autonomous systems quickly enough, you may want to look a little closer to home.
“With the clock ticking on when we’ll see autonomous farming become a commercial reality, my hope is that we’ll see Canadian manufacturers lead the way there,” said Leah Olson, president of Agricultural Manufacturers of Canada.
“Big manufacturers are putting huge dollars into research and development, but so are short line manufacturers — and they’re able to be a little more nimble in their product development.”
Canada’s short line manufacturing industry is a growing one, largely because of the innovations that these smaller manufacturers offer to farmers and ranchers. Historically, these smaller companies have been located close to farming communities, where the regional growing conditions spur new technologies and implements.
“They’re in rural areas, and often, they work very directly with farmers or ranchers to understand how their farm equipment is actually being used,” said Olson. “That sort of market intel is really important. That’s what helps drive the innovations in the short line industry.”
Technology advances also play a major role and it’s hoped government-funded ‘superclusters’ aimed at speeding adoption of artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing processes will also speed innovation.
“We’ve got a variety of manufacturers that are doing some really interesting product development, and many of them are related to autonomous farming,” she said. “The short line manufacturers across Canada are all acutely attuned to how quickly farmers and ranchers are evolving their operations.”
Although these equipment makers are small compared to the likes of John Deere and Case IH, they collectively do a lot of business — exporting $1.8 billion of equipment and implements to more than 150 countries last year.
“The manufacturers in Canada have a very strong reputation globally for providing very high-quality implements and equipment,” said Olson. “It’s really the Canadian quality and practicality of the product that sets us apart from others.”
The U.S. imports about 80 per cent of Canada’s short line equipment and implements, followed by Australia, Russia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, Japan, and South Africa.
“We’re traditionally exporting into other countries where dryland farming is dominant or there are ranching practices that are similar to those here in Canada,” she said.
As producers move toward more specialized equipment, Olson expects short line equipment exports to top $2 billion “within the next couple of years.”
But a new challenge has emerged — American steel and aluminum tariffs.
“Most of the time, farm equipment is exported without tariffs, so for ag equipment manufacturers, it’s one of the first times they’re getting caught by tariffs,” she said.
And while it’s vital to the industry to keep working with the United States, short line manufacturers are also eyeing opportunities in other countries. South America — particularly Argentina and Brazil — is a huge potential growth market, as is China, which is making significant investments into becoming food independent.
“We need to remember there are some very good markets that are not the United States,” said Olson.
By expanding its reach into other countries, Canada’s short line sector will be able to build even more relationships with farmers — albeit on a much larger scale.
“Because there are so many different types of agriculture across the world, we can learn quite a bit from farmers outside of Canada by increasing our connections with them,” said Olson.
“It’s really that relationship between the farmers and the manufacturers that makes Canada a world leader in farm equipment.
“And working together not only makes our farmers better farmers, but it also makes for better farm equipment.”