Ag technology is advancing faster than ever before — but farmers still aren’t always sure how to make these innovations work on their own operations.
“Technology is such a huge component of agriculture going into the future. It’s making agriculture more sustainable, more productive and more profitable,” said Joy Agnew, director of applied research at Olds College.
“But there’s still a lot of uncertainty and unknowns about the operability and ease of use and robustness of these technologies. Those are all questions that producers have, and without an actual testbed, it’s very difficult to answer those questions.”
That’s led to an ‘adoption gap’ when it comes to ag tech. While ease of use and cost are major factors, according to a 2016 survey by Farm Credit Canada, the most significant barrier was trust.
“Everybody is asking questions about ag technologies, but right now, the only sources of information for them are from the technology developers or the retailers themselves,” said Agnew.
“Producers need and want that independent third-party information from other people who can really assess the robustness and the value of the technology.”
That’s particularly true when it comes the data generated by this technology — in the FCC survey, one-quarter of respondents said they were less and less comfortable in sharing their data.
This fear transcends willingness to adopt new technologies. (And there was no generation gap on this issue — the under-35 crowd was just as concerned as those over 55.)
That’s partly because of a disconnect between technology developers and farmers themselves, said Agnew.
“Technology developers may think they have a great idea that’s going to serve farmers really well, but they don’t always understand the farming operations and the farmers’ needs as well as they need to to develop and optimize the technology.”
That was one of the driving forces behind the college’s Smart Farm when it opened last summer, said Agnew.
“Technologies are booming, and there needs to be a place for entrepreneurs to get the technical support they need, and for producers to get the real-world value propositions they want.”
The first phase of the multimillion-dollar project is a 110-acre cropping operation that’s wired (so to speak) to the hilt — including soil monitors, digital weather stations, wireless grain bin sensors, multispectral imaging, precision ag technology, drones, farm management software, data analytics, and artificial intelligence.
When complete, the Smart Farm will top out at more than 2,000 acres and include a livestock operation, and give students the chance to get hands-on experience with tech on the bleeding edge.
“The goal of the Smart Farm is to turn our existing 2,000-acre facility into a testbed for implementation and integration of all the technologies that are commercially available,” said Agnew.
“We want to help producers understand technologies better and how they’re going to help them on their farms.”
And the upcoming AgSmart event on Aug. 13-14 will be “the first real kick at the can.”
“It’s meant to be a learning opportunity for producers, agronomists, researchers, and the general public about ag technologies and what we’re doing at the Olds College Smart Farm,” she said.
The event, a joint venture with Agri-Trade Equipment Expo, will feature 40 different ag-tech sessions, hands-on outdoor displays and demos, speakers, and about 70 exhibitors.
“This is an educational event for farmers to see how they can take the data and use agricultural technologies for their operations,” said event co-manager Stacy Felkar.
“We’ve got everything from start-ups to the large equipment manufacturers showcasing their latest and greatest in technology.”
All of this is already on the market, added Agnew.
“These aren’t five or ten years down the road. They aren’t a ‘maybe it will work.’ These are commercially available.”
But some of it is pretty new to the people at the Smart Farm as well, such as soil sensors and crop canopy monitors that were installed earlier this summer.
“We’re not experts operating this equipment. We don’t know a lot about it, so it’s going to be very similar to the experience producers would have if they themselves just decided to adopt this technology,” said Agnew.
“It’s going to be real. It’s going to be very practical. We don’t really know what to expect yet, but it’s going to be eye-opening for producers.”
It is also, of course, a chance to show off the Smart Farm.
“We want to educate producers and the community about what we’re doing now and what we’re planning on doing over the next five to six years,” said Agnew.
“I would love if everyone walked out of there saying, ‘I didn’t know what the Olds College Smart Farm was all about, but now I do.’”
For more info or to purchase tickets (which range from $20 for general admission to $165 for a “full access” two-day pass), go to www.agsmartolds.ca.