Prairie farmers look to increase tech use, but face obstacles

CNS Canada — As spring approaches, some producers are searching for new technology to integrate into their operations — while others have opted out of the ag tech sector, whether by choice or through a lack of accessibility.

“Even two years ago, it was way worse out there in terms of apps, in terms of what’s possible,” said Dean Harder, a Manitoba rep and board member with the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Technology has been edging into farming for years — not just in machinery such as combines or tractors, but in sensors for measuring yield and soil moisture, drones for scouting fields, mobile apps and more.

“It really spreads the gamut, between just basic simple apps for recording your input in a more succinct way, to stuff like figuring out your nutrient level,” said Harder, a grain and oilseed grower near Lowe Farm, Man., about 45 km northeast of Winkler.

“I think the shifts are happening. We’re just barely on the verge.”

But the extent to which farmers are able to connect with ag tech also depends on their connections.

People living in rural areas are more likely to experience slower download speeds and monthly caps, and are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to be dissatisfied with their service, according to the most recent survey from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), released March 18.

“This has been an issue for years,” Harder said.

Many farmers have turned to using data on their phones, which outpaces their Wi-Fi services — but using that data often comes at a higher cost, he said.

“There needs to be room for us to play. To be able to work with it, for it to be able to work with our farms.”

Since Harder’s farm is about an hour out of Winnipeg, his service is sometimes slow but OK overall.

“Top of the hill”

Next door in Saskatchewan, however, an interactive map of high-speed internet availability in Canada, released last week by the CRTC, shows many blank spots in rural areas.

“The coverage is there if you’re on top of the hill, but if you go into the field the coverage is gone,” said Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) and a farmer at Wynyard, Sask., about 140 km northwest of Yorkton.

A lack of coverage — and even an inability to make cellphone calls — is more than an inconvenience for farmers, he said. “It’s a safety issue. That cellphone is your lifeline.”

Slow and sometimes unavailable internet isn’t the only reason some farmers are apprehensive about integrating technology.

“My father’s old-school, he doesn’t even use a computer at all,” Harder said. “And you also have to have workers on the farm who also are willing to integrate that.”

But some apps are catering to that, Harder said, noting one app he uses with quick-convert options for recording how much grain goes into a bin.

“What’s nice is you can do it in pounds, kilograms or bushels right on the spot,” he said. “It’s so nice when you’re dealing with a variety of generations.”

Technology can be used to improve crop management and unnecessary spraying, said Hall, who added he has seen producers use drones to scout fields rather than walk through and pick out individual leaves.

“The younger guys coming in are using a whole lot more,” he said.

Learning about new technology isn’t worthwhile for some producers, especially those nearing retirement, he added.

“You’re not going to spend the money and do the education that needs to happen to get to that point, and to be able to use this stuff,” he said.

“But if you’ve got your whole career ahead of you, you’re going to do everything you can to improve the management and operation of your farm if you can.”

Some producers are concerned about companies being able to record and use their information against them, Harder said.

“There’s kind of a fear amongst farmers of like ‘If you’re able to record all my information — what I do, what I put in the field, and then what my outcome is in terms of harvest — is that OK for the company to have?'”

To an extent, he said, data can show a farmer did a good job, but sometimes technology such as yield monitors hasn’t been synchronized properly and could be inaccurate.

The NFU sees an opportunity for technology to be used more on farms, he said.

“Farmers have been open to things like tractor technology,” he said. “But there’s so much potential, especially as we move forward.”

Jade Markus writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting. Follow her at @jade_markus on Twitter.

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