Industry players and academic institutions are building skills to take on the revolution.
"A fourth agricultural revolution is underway, and Canada needs to seize it."
This statement opens a report released by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Thought Leadership team this past summer called “Farmer 4.0: How the Coming Skills Revolution can Transform Agriculture” (Farmer 4.0).
Following the three previous agricultural revolutions (the domestication of animals, the mechanization of work and the mass scaling of genetic and chemical science), RBC Thought Leadership states that the “skills revolution” will have an equally profound impact on agriculture.
Cultivating a Workforce with the Right Skills
The report continues that with the right mix of capital, technology and skills, agriculture could add $11 billion to Canada’s economy by 2030, enhance the sustainability of Canadian agriculture and improve food security.
On the technology and skills front, the report says Canadian post-secondary agriculture education will need a significant shift in order to cultivate a workforce that fills the current labour shortage and possesses the right skillset. It says these skills will be largely driven by data collection and analysis.
We have a supply problem in precision agriculture. Over the years, very little precision ag content has been offered in Canadian universities and colleges.
“We have a supply problem in precision agriculture. Over the years, very little precision ag content has been offered in Canadian universities and colleges,” says Dale Steele, precision agriculture consultant and owner of Steele Ag Insights. Steele completed a report for the Canadian government in 2017 which highlighted barriers to adoption of precision agriculture in Canada and he contributed to Farmer 4.0.
“There are not many programs that provide this education,” he says. “But that is starting to change. In two to four years we will start to see more students who have been exposed to precision agriculture technology.”
To Steele, “precision agriculture” is very broadly a set of tools which gather data to measure results and then use this to inform future decisions. Precision ag tools can include hardware, software, remote sensing and more pieces of specialized equipment.
“Precision ag is too broad for one person to be an expert in all areas,” he says. “For service providers, a team approach with experts in the appropriate subject matter for what you are doing is best.”
Since there is currently no post-secondary option available to train those already in the workforce, Steele says agronomic service providers, including ag retailers, have traditionally relied heavily upon on-the-job training, and still do.
Troy LaForge, senior agronomist with the Ultimate Yield Management Institute, (UYMI) a part of Rack Petroleum (The Rack), says without existing external education options available to them, the company has stepped up its internal education and training to build their team’s agronomy and data skills.
“We looked around and said, ‘You know what? We don’t see anything that tests people for what we do,’” says LaForge. “So, we’re building our own curriculum in-house to do that.”
LaForge says the "Ultimate Yield Certificate" will launch in February 2020 for the first group of registered UYMI staff. He also says UYMI has begun talks with industry partners to extend the training beyond their own company, and the certificate is also open to agronomists from outside the organization.
A significant component of the course will focus on data collection and how to apply that data to a producer’s cropping plan. “There is a big lack of awareness about proper data collection, utilization and recognizing good data from bad,” says LaForge. “So that will be part of the curriculum.”
The Rack’s approach to agronomy, called six factor agronomy, focuses on optimizing six key elements of production that drive a crop’s yield potential. The team uses customer-designed analytics tools to collect, record and analyze data from equipment and sensors to measure the impact of each factor and determine which area, like pest management or nutrient management, customers should focus on to improve their yield outcome and profit.
Randi Wenzel is a UYMI agronomist with a focus on precision agriculture at The Rack who is leading the charge on putting data to work to inform customer recommendations right now. Wenzel is responsible for managing data collection and transferring that data to the client in a way that is strategic, productive and approachable.
I think it is going to be important for us to walk in step with agronomists going into the future to drive yield potential and profitability for farmers.
“I think working with large amounts of data can be really intimidating for some growers,” says Wenzel. “They’re generating all of this data and they just don’t really know where to start.”
By conducting thorough analysis on their end, Wenzel says The Rack’s team is able to help customers cut through the noise to focus on the precise areas that need attention. While Wenzel is the company’s precision ag specialist, she says that neither she nor any of the other agronomists tackle this work alone.
“One agronomist is never on their own,” she says. “We can all utilize a team member to bounce thoughts from one person to the next and see if we can come up with a ‘why’ when we get unexpected results.”
Engaging with Industry Partners
This team approach echoes the point made by Steele and Farmer 4.0; building a skilled team will be crucial to sailing through the skills revolution.
Along with building their internal team, Leo Bose, North American harvesting and advanced farming systems (AFS) marketing manager with Case IH (Case) says there are also opportunities for equipment manufacturers and agronomists to work more closely to provide the best service to their end customer.
“It will be important for us to walk in step with agronomists into the future to drive profitability for farmers,” says Bose. He continues, saying their R&D team has agronomists on staff, and views agronomic design as a core principle for all their equipment.
“We lay a groundwork with our products to try to provide the best agronomic solution,” he says. “Many producers work with an agronomist who helps them create specific variable rate prescriptions that they would place into the planter in our equipment.”
Along with the agronomists employed internally at Case or at their dealerships, Bose says Case partners with agronomists from independent consultants or ag retailers to provide training and clear up questions about their equipment.
“Our team of product specialists works with our dealers and can also train local agronomists on our equipment,” he says. “They can provide answers to questions we get like, ‘How do I import a prescription into an AFS Pro 700 Display?’ They have that solution at the ready.”
Automation: “The Sky is the Limit”
Farmer 4.0 stresses that smart machines will need to perform most traditional agricultural labour in the coming years. Case is investing heavily in automation; Bose says their AFS equipment is currently 80 to 90 per cent automated.
Case has broken automation down into five categories ranging from the first level “guidance” (autosteer), up through increasing levels of automation that still engage the operator within the tractor cab, all the way to full automation, which entirely removes the operator from the cab.
“This is an exciting frontier for us,” says Bose. “From guidance, to coordination, optimization, operator assisted autonomy and full autonomy, we really see a path forward that our team is working on with automation to take us into the future.”
To build and service their equipment, Bose says that Case is always looking for qualified individuals who have those technology and machinery skills, whether that person’s roots are rural or urban.
“The future is boundless for individuals with a craving for technology,” says Bose. “And, if they have a passion for agriculture, that goes a long way.”
New Education Programs
Farmer 4.0 states 600 fewer young people are entering agriculture every year and says “Just look at any population map to the see challenge. Canada’s cities have grown… over the last three decades, to 25 million; our rural population has stayed flat at 6 million.”
To realize the industry’s full potential, Farmer 4.0 says it is crucial to attract young people from urban centres to agriculture to fill the industry’s projected labour gap of 123,000 people within a decade.
Olds College in Olds, Alta., has recognized this need and has created an “Agriculture Technology Integration Post-Diploma Certificate” for students who have completed science and technology programs to transition those skills to an agricultural application.
“We are still focusing on our traditional farm student, but there are a lot of students from Canadian cities who are looking for a place to apply their technology skills,” says James Benkie, dean, program development, agriculture technology.
“We want to demonstrate that agriculture is an exciting, challenging and changing place where technology fits very, very well,” he says.
This is one of two new programs that Olds College launched in 2019 as part of its brand new Werklund School of Agriculture Technology. The second is the “Precision Agriculture Techgronomy Diploma,” concentrating on the connections between agronomy, equipment and data.
“Olds is probably the first college in Canada to stake a claim on smart ag and assemble the resources to produce grads with some exposure to precision ag tools and hardware,” says Steele, who worked as a consultant with Olds on their new curriculums.
Benkie says grads from these programs will have the skills to succeed in over 20 jobs like precision agriculture specialist, GIS specialist, precision agronomist, robotic service technician and “jobs that don’t even exist yet.”
Training on the Smart Farm
To gain the necessary field experience to hone these skills, Benkie says their students will be working extensively on the Olds College “Smart Farm,” which had its grand unveiling in the summer of 2018.
The Smart Farm is a 2,000-acre working livestock and crop farm, equipped with soil monitors, digital weather stations, grain bin sensors and more precision technology so students gain experience with the latest tools they’ll need on the job, now and in the future.
“With the Smart Farm we want to give students a hands-on experience with respect to technology so they can learn how it works, how to break it, how to make mistakes,” says Benkie. “We are also exploring adding augmented reality and virtual reality components to the Smart Farm to educate students during the ‘10 months of winter’ we enjoy here in Alberta.”
The Smart Farm is run with the support of industry partners, and Benkie says consultations with agri-business played a big role in developing the new curriculums. He says the college conducted thorough consultations with equipment, agronomy and crop input sectors, including ag retailers.
Embracing the Revolution
“Retail is one of the sectors in agriculture facing a lot of challenges today from what I’ll call this ‘disruption,’ and that’s something we looked at quite extensively as we looked at these programs.
“Our students won’t have all the answers, in fact, I hope they arrive at work with more questions than answers,” says Benkie. “But I believe they will have the drive to find those answers and help solve some of the challenges ahead.”
Everyone, from companies that build the hardware, to agronomists that help customers apply solutions and institutions that train the next generation, has seen the need to evolve to conquer the challenges and seize the opportunities coming with the skills revolution.
Farmer 4.0 says crop production is the most advanced ag industry sector when it comes to using precision technology, but there is still further to go. To succeed through the skills revolution and remain productive, sustainable and farmer-focused, a combination of on-the-job training and new college and university programs will be very valuable for ag retailers.
“Looking at Iowa State University, precision agriculture has been very well researched and understood there for a long time now,” says LaForge. “We’re just starting to catch up here. Institutions are recognizing that we’ve got to do something to put trained individuals into the workplace.”
The outcome of the revolution will depend on it.
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