Olds College to become a hub for ‘smart agriculture’

A new $32-million institute is being created to put the college on the bleeding edge of high-tech agriculture

You can find an old red barn on the grounds of Olds College, but the school is planning to be a leader in the cutting-edge world of ‘smart agriculture.’
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You’ve heard about precision agriculture. Now get ready for what leading educators and thinkers are calling the next step beyond precision ag — smart agriculture.

Smart agriculture, as it is defined today, is the optimization of technology and science for the efficient use of land and water for both economic and environmental sustainability. If it sounds a little vague, that’s because in many ways it’s still being defined.

But it’s still real — and for proof look no further than Olds College’s $32-million Werklund Institute, which is being created to help define smart agriculture and then apply it in real life.

“We’re looking at it as supporting integrated learning in agriculture and food systems by using big data, technology, and the Internet of Things to both increase the quality and quantity of ag production,” said Debbie Thompson, the college’s vice-president academic and student experience.

The Werklund Institute is a way for students to get a better educational experience, interact more with the industry, and innovate within the industry prior to graduation.

“We really feel that Olds College can be that bridge from science and technological development to how you use it, how you apply it, how you can create value from it on your farm,” said Tanya McDonald, vice-president research and external relations.

“As students become part of that learning process and go out into the industry, they can take this knowledge with them and help the industry become more efficient in reaching our food goals.”

‘Bigger-picture’ leadership

The institute is being paid for by its namesake — oilfield industry leader David Werklund and his partner Susan Norman. Earlier this year, Werklund and Norman donated $16 million, the largest-ever personal donation to an Alberta college or technical institution. That sum will be doubled by leveraging other funding sources.

“We have a donor who, although his fortune was not made in agriculture and he was never a student at Olds College, recognizes the values he learned growing up on a farm as a young boy,” said McDonald. “He’s very interested in the bigger picture of how agriculture benefits the world and is very invested in seeing that industry be successful.”

Werklund worked with college officials for about 18 months to shape the vision of the institute, said McDonald.

Smart ag versus precision ag

So what’s the difference between smart agriculture and precision ag?

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, smart agriculture means something more, said Thompson.

“Twenty to 25 years ago when people were asking about precision agriculture, it was really around geographic information systems (GIS) and that sort of thing. Today it’s about variable-rate technology, GIS and geomapping, auto steering, centimetre-accuracy planting, nutrient management, yield monitoring, soil and nutrient mapping, prescription mapping and multiple vehicle coupling.”

It’s also about interpreting the multitude of data available through modern ag technology.

“Never before have we been able to collect this amount of data — whether it’s moisture data, soil temperature, topography, topsoil depth, and all of the variable seed and fertilizer rates,” said McDonald.

“But how do you make sense of it? How do you make good decisions? Should you invest in this $30,000 technology? How are you going to create value out of that?”

There’s “a huge gap” between what technology can do and how it can be used in a practical way, she said.

One of the goals of the Werklund Institute is to bring in leaders from different industries, come up with solutions, test solutions, and tell farmers about those that can work in agriculture.

“The people we need in agriculture to solve today’s problems are not just agronomists — they’re physicists, chemists, and software developers,” said McDonald. “We believe bringing those interdisciplinary teams around the table to solve a common problem is going to have much more value than doing it in a traditional way with only traditional partners.”

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