Advances in farm equipment over the past 15 years have focused on one thing — allowing farmers to do more with less.
Bigger equipment to cut the time when seeding and harvesting. GPS to minimize overlap. Precision tech to make every seed and input count. No till to capture snow and retain moisture (with less erosion).
And the next generation of ag equipment may help farmers with another critical resource shortage — labour.
“In 2004, this industry was facing a labour shortage of about 30,000 workers, and in 2014, that figure had doubled to almost 60,000 workers,” said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.
“What we’re seeing is this doubling of the workforce shortage every 10 years. That’s pretty concerning, given that the industry is poised for growth.”
Canada’s agricultural labour pool shrinks a little more every year, as the population ages and urban populations grow. And that’s costing the industry money.
In a 2014 impact assessment, the council concluded primary producers lost $1.5 billion in yearly revenue because of labour shortages. And that number doesn’t include losses on the processing side.
“We’re seeing staggering impacts of labour shortages already, with the expectation that, that is going to increase significantly,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst. “Employers, business owners, and farmers are choosing to retire early or scale down their operations or get out of the business altogether.”
If things don’t turn around soon, Canada’s ag industry can expect to face a labour shortage of 114,000 people by 2025, the council predicts.
“How is this industry ever going to achieve growth targets when even just sustaining the industry is a challenge, given the labour shortages that continue to plague the industry?”
But it’s not all bad news, she added. Even as labour has got tighter and tighter, each worker’s productivity has shot up dramatically.
“Across a five-year span, there was a 45 per cent increase in productivity per worker as an average across all commodities. That is unheard of in other industries,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.
“Partly that has to do with technology — one person being able to do more because they’re being aided by some technology changes.”
That’s been a key trend in equipment manufacturing over the past 15 years, said Leah Olson, chief executive officer at SeedMaster Manufacturing and its sister company, DOT Technology Corp. The latter is now in the early commercialization of an autonomous “power platform,” on which a seeder, sprayer, or other implement can be mounted and operated by a tablet.
The inspiration was self-driving car technology but inventor Norbert Beaujot has cited labour savings as one of the big pluses of autonomous farm equipment.
“There are pretty big technological changes that have occurred in the industry,” said Olson. “Most of these changes are the result of necessity. When you look at most innovation, it comes at a time when people are looking for a better way to do things or they have to do something better by virtue of the situation they find themselves in.”
Equipment manufacturers are working on new technologies that will reduce — or eliminate entirely — the need for skilled labour.
“Right now, farmers are looking for solutions to their farm labour challenges,” said Olson. “As the labour shortage gets even more acute, I suspect another change is going to occur to address that.”
That change is already in the works, as DOT isn’t the only manufacturer exploring the next frontier of autonomous machinery.
“We believe strongly in autonomous farming, so when I look ahead at the next 15 years, I’m very excited about the future of farming,” said Olson.
Her company’s plan is to marry self-driving tech with artificial intelligence — a.k.a. machine learning.
“In year one, our power platform may not reduce labour, simply because we need to continue to develop the machine learning on the DOT platform,” said Olson. “But the intent is to be able to reduce the overall labour on farms by using autonomous equipment and machine learning.”
It’s not just major equipment manufacturers — some farmers are going the DIY route to advance this technology.
“Even when I was a kid out discing or out drilling, I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way,’” Indiana farmer Kyler Laird told attendees at last year’s FarmTech.
“I spent all this money on RTK (real-time kinematic) guidance, but I thought I could do better.”
So he did. In 2015, Laird — who worked as a computer scientist before coming back to the farm in 2010 — automated his grandfather’s Massey tractor using less than $1,000 in parts and some simple computer programming.
That’s when things got really interesting.
He sent the tractor out to plant 50 acres of corn in the field across from his house using the simplest algorithms he could come up with. And it worked. His first ‘tractobot’ was up and running.
But the family farmer won’t become obsolete any time soon, Laird predicted.
“A lot of people think, ‘Great, I can go on vacation and check in from the beach,’” he said. “I think of it as, I can do all the things that it takes a human to do instead of trying to be a robot and stay on the line.”
So instead of relaxing on the couch while his tractor does the work, Laird is out in the field, checking on seeding depth or running to get fertilizer — the things he can’t do from the cab of a tractor.
“I’ve been in the cab, and I planted very poorly,” he said. “If you want to know if you’re planting well, you need to get on the ground.”
For Laird, who has also done some automation on his grain cart and combine, autonomous equipment eliminates the tedious parts of farming.
“I could only spend a few hours in a tractor before getting pretty fatigued. With this auto steer, I could go all day and all night,” he said. “What a huge difference.”
By supervising the operation from a truck or in the field, Laird can focus on the business of farming while reducing the work of farming.
“I’m in the truck answering calls or emails, and I look up and it’s done another 10 acres,” he said, noting he seeded all of his corn acres the previous year “without being on the tractor while it was planting.”
Not a cure-all
Still, autonomous machines won’t be a silver bullet for ag’s labour woes, MacDonald-Dewhirst cautioned.
“Although it’s helpful, it’s not going to solve the labour challenges moving forward,” she said.
The introduction of new technology doesn’t eliminate the need for skilled labour — it just changes the skills that are needed.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You have to then train the workforce, you have to adapt to those new production techniques and technology, and in order to maintain those systems, you need different skills moving forward,” she said.
“It’s definitely a good thing. It will address some of those labour challenges. But it won’t make them go away completely.”
Instead, the industry will need to address knowledge and skill gaps in existing workers, while also increasing the supply of new ones by improving access to foreign workers and encouraging more Canadians to think about careers in the ag industry.
And MacDonald-Dewhirst thinks it can be done without automated tractors.
“This is an industry that’s really effective at figuring things out and addressing challenges when they come up,” she said. “It’s an industry that’s good at putting out those fires.”
But as far as Olson is concerned, autonomous equipment is the future of farming.
“We’re just the tip of the iceberg with DOT,” she said. “I believe it will change how farmers farm — either by allowing them to farm in ways that they couldn’t, or by allowing them to make different decisions that will help them be more efficient and profitable.
“Autonomous equipment is a real opportunity for all of us in the agricultural community.”