For many, the term ‘precision agriculture’ is becoming a source of irritation — a buzzword that often seems more about jargon than things you can use on the farm today.
Viewed from that angle, the title of Olds College’s new diploma program — Precision Agriculture – Techgronomy — may seem like more of the same. But its proponents say the program’s goal is the opposite of that: To train a new generation of experts able to unlock the promise of powerful technologies in very practical ways.
“Farms are complex systems. They always have been and they’re not getting any simpler as we move forward,” said James Benkie, dean of the college’s Werklund School of Agriculture Technology.
“We want the students to understand the systems that are in play on most farms in Western Canada.”
The program aims to train students for careers requiring “a deep understanding of the connectedness between agronomy, agriculture machinery/purpose-built network management, and data sciences.”
That’s a mouthful, but the emphasis is squarely on the practical, said Alex Melnitchouck, the school’s chief technical officer, who also teaches a number of data-related classes.
“We decided to build a unique program that would address all that complexity in a very simple format,” he said. “(Students) want to make sure they know the next step in the industry. Olds College has always been the place where students come to learn what’s coming next — the agriculture of tomorrow — and that’s exactly what we’re providing.”
Focus on agronomy
As its name suggests, agronomic studies are a key part of the techgronomy curriculum.
“Agronomy is an important part of what these students are going to do,” said Benkie. “They learn the foundations from soils, plants, water and fertility management and then take those and apply them through a technical lens.
“When you add that technical lens, it starts to change or accelerate potential data but it doesn’t usurp the fact that agronomy is a primary component of what they’re learning.”
There are 21 students in the inaugural class of the two-year program and it’s intended that they will spend a lot of time on the college’s Smart Farm, an actual farm now collectively covering 2,300 acres. In addition to equipment such as drones equipped with multispectral imaging devices and the autonomous DOT Power Platform, parts of it have a full array of Wi-Fi linked tech such as soil monitors, digital weather stations and wireless grain bin sensors — all coupled with sophisticated management software and data analytics.
The pandemic means all the first-term classes are being delivered online. In some ways this is good timing because much of the curriculum in the first term revolves around data rather than boots on the ground.
Existing data from the Smart Farm offers plenty for students to sink their teeth into, said Benkie. He points to an ongoing project called hyperlayer data concept development. More than 100 digital layers of data — including historical yield, historical and current satellite imagery, weather data and even soil samples going back to the mid-’80s — have been collected from one site and digitized for students to study.
“Ultimately what we have (at the Smart Farm) is a playground for students to really push the boundaries, especially when you talk about predictive agriculture,” said Benkie. “We’re hoping the students really buy into seeing what’s happened in history, what’s currently happening through best practices and how they could challenge what goes on, on farm in the future through a predictive lens.”
In cases where in-field course work is necessary, program administrators have developed some innovative workarounds.
An example is the electronic control system material. These are the in-cab interfaces which provide feedback on field conditions so producers can make adjustments as needed. Normally, students would be using these in the field, but in lieu of that instructors have sent them electronic simulation kits to work with at home.
“It’s not perfect, but when we do get them back to campus hopefully we can seamlessly transition them to real-life scenarios,” said Benkie.
“They will have learned about the components, the hardware and the data so when they’re looking at a DOT or a sprayer or a combine, they have those pieces in place.”
Although COVID-19 has cast a giant question mark over how and when to carry forward with in-person training, Melnitchouck remains optimistic.
“Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain,” he said. “Eventually everything will go back to normal. Before that we will try to do our best to ensure they get as much experience as possible using their boots on the ground.”
Some students are also giving homework a new meaning.
“We already have some examples of students doing their own field tests using their home fields for some of the exercises, which is highly encouraged and supported,” said Melnitchouck.
Diverse student backgrounds
The on-farm backgrounds of the PA Tech students vary wildly: Some grew up on farms, others have little to no ag experience — although many of the latter have a background in information technology (IT).
Benkie is not surprised by this.
“We’re getting a lot more interest in agriculture and the addition of technology over the last decade has helped that conversation,” he said. “With the consolidation of farms we see year over year, a lot of people are three generations removed from the farm and really don’t have the opportunity to be a part of the farm team in the family unit anymore.
“The wonderful thing about our programs is you can still be keenly interested in the amazing industry of agriculture and have a passion for technology and come and apply that passion. I think it’s a win win.”
Melnitchouck said he’s been impressed by the curiosity of the students.
“When they talked about their backgrounds there were a number of people with backgrounds and experience in IT,” he said. “At the same time they have some farming experience and want to learn about the integration of IT and farming, and apply that on their farms.
“That was a big surprise, but at the same time I think it was a motivation for everybody building this program, including myself.”