In the drive to become more efficient and adaptive, farms are becoming innovation incubators.
The future of farming might bring tiny drone pollinators or a fishy foray into conserving water in greenhouses. It might bring an app that diagnoses plant disease, artificial intelligence that reduces a farmer’s driving time, or robotics that lend some extra hands.
Image credit: MemoryCatcher via Pixabay (Free Pixabay licence)
Future farming might bring some, all or none of those. What it will bring, says Stan Blade, ’81 BSc, is change.
“This is an industry that is looking at how it can expand, how it can do things in a more informed manner, how to be more efficient, how to generate more revenue,” says Blade, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. “There’s a reason why agriculture and food stories are above the fold in the business section these days.”
That reason is food production, as an increasing number of mouths to feed is divided by challenges such as a shrinking and ageing workforce, climate change and reduced arable land. Between 1971 and 2011, for example, Canada lost about six per cent of its agricultural land — approximately 3.9 million hectares — to the growth of cities, highways and airports, oil and gas, mining, and alternative energy projects, according to a York University policy paper. And Alberta’s two largest cities grew by 52 per cent between 1984 and 2013, swallowing some of the province’s top-ranked farmland, according to a University of Alberta study.
Farms and ranches take up just seven per cent of Canada’s landmass but they’re cornerstones of the food production system, with more than 193,000 farms providing oilseeds and grains, fruits and vegetables, poultry, beef and other meats.
Meanwhile, a rise in small-scale farming systems is diversifying how food is produced in Canada.
Canada’s greenhouse industry, for example, has been growing steadily for eight years, producing more than 660 million kilograms of fresh fruits and vegetables in 2019. Aquaculture farms, which raise fish, seafood and edible marine plants, now exist in all 10 provinces plus one territory.
There’s even a fledgling industry that mashes the two together in the form of aquaponic farming systems, raising both fish and vegetables for food.
A Perfect Circle
In an engineering building not far from Blade’s campus office is Rafiq Ahmad’s Aquaponics 4.0 Learning Factory, nicknamed AllFactory, where traditional hydroponics will meet the fourth industrial revolution.
Call it Agriculture 4.0, with pools of tilapia fish.
“Everybody thinks that engineering is restricted to just mechanical systems … cars or airplanes, things like that,” says Ahmad, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “That was something I wanted to change here at the University of Alberta.”
AllFactory is a 33-square-metre factory-in-a-lab that will see traditional methods of aquaponics practised alongside the development of machine-learning technologies for the integrated fish-and-plant system.
Aquaponics is an indoor circular system in which wastewater from the tilapia pools is circulated to plants that use the nutrients, filter the water and return it to the fish. (Crop choices would rely on consumer markets, location and local climate, pest resistance and how well the crops take up nutrients.) The system’s environmental and economic advantages — nutrient recycling, minimal water loss and dual-income streams — have intrigued Alberta farmers since the early 1990s.
The project received funding and approval in early 2020 by NSERC Canada. The pandemic has stalled the final setup of Ahmad’s learning factory but seeing how COVID-19 has affected on-site workforces has reinforced his confidence in the need for engineered, automated solutions.
“You need to constantly monitor the plants, the nutrients in plants. You have to monitor fish growth. You have to monitor that nothing goes wrong in the process on a daily basis, even an hourly and minute basis,” he says. “If we cannot bring a lot of people to work, how can we make it completely autonomous so that people can monitor from a distance?”
AllFactory will partner with businesses related to food production, especially those looking for engineered solutions to specific problems. In fact, one such conversation, with a U.S. company that develops aquaponics systems, inspired Ahmad’s recent purchase — a small drone.
“Their problem was related to broad-based pollination,” he says about the company’s dilemma. How do indoor plant systems pollinate? “That is a big issue in aquaponics or hydroponics systems. Because you cannot bring in bees.”
Agriculture Meets AI
The agriculture industry is no stranger to data collection. Gathering information about soil, sky, routines and yields has long been part of the farming rhythm. During an early-morning Zoom meeting in January that included academia, government agencies and agriculture industry stakeholders, Shazan Jabbar, ’16 MSc, was pitching the benefits of turning those rhythms into algorithms.
Jabbar is a scientist who specializes in machine learning. He’s hoping to drum up interest in a new program from the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) that aims to help the ag industry explore the potential of AI. To make his point in the Zoom meeting, Jabbar demonstrated a German-made app called Plantix, in which a farmer takes a picture of a poorly growing plant and the app identifies whether it is suffering from disease, pests or nutrient deficiencies.
“You must be wondering how this stuff gets built,” Jabbar said to the group. “Mostly it’s just clever algorithms and data. Data in combination with computation.”
Amii’s program, Reducing Emissions through Machine Intelligence (REMI), pairs AI researchers with organizations to figure out how emerging technology can be used to reduce emissions, says Nella Brodett, Amii’s director of investment and partnerships. A version of the program for the energy industry, which had 20 companies participate, was completed in February 2021. This is the first time REMI has been offered to the agriculture sector.
Farms in Canada generate about eight to 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and much of Amii’s work will be to find ways to optimize different farm processes, Brodett says. “How many times do you run your equipment based on when you need to run it versus when you thought you needed to run it?”
The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be small on an individual scale but there is strength in numbers. “If every farm in Alberta, every farm in Canada, every farm in North America was able to move that dial just slightly,” Brodett says, “that’s a big impact over time.”
She says the program has received a curious but cautious response from applicants, which range from tech startups to family farms. There are concerns about financial risk, invasion of privacy and whether farms would need to hire data scientists. “Most of these farms are people’s homes,” she says. “This is actually personal property.”
REMI is a 16-week program structured in phases, and participants will go only as far as they need. The first phase is educational, Brodett says, “for the folks who may never use the technology or may not use it in the next five years, 10 years, but now understand what it means.” The second phase walks participants through a tangible idea. In the final phase, which only a handful of participants will reach, a proof of concept is developed.
“The farmer needs to understand what the technology means, not at a very technical level but to have that aha moment of, ‘This could impact my business positively. Now I want to know the next steps.’ ”
There’s a complicated relationship between agriculture and climate change, Blade says. The ongoing work to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint — through measures such as reduced tillage or grazing strategies to maximize carbon sequestration — needs to be accompanied by research to ensure producers are set up for success.
“There will be warming in the environment. There will be challenges around moisture and transpiration,” Blade says. “Agriculture would be very much at the front of that. But we also have to be aware of what the data show us on how productivity will change in different parts of the world.” Blade adds that the sector needs to navigate the coming changes to climate without adding to the problems.
While REMI seeks to use AI to tackle emissions, crop scientists are using it to identify plant genes that use water more efficiently, fight disease more effectively and adapt more readily to the changing climate, according to an Alberta agribusiness market study from 2020.
The government and industry are investing heavily in research to drive smart innovations in agriculture.
Precision agriculture will be among the first areas addressed by the U of A’s new 5G Living Lab, the result of a $15-million, five-year partnership between the university and Telus to explore commercial applications of new research.
In 2019, the federal government gave $49.5 million to the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN). As with Amii, projects that are approved for funding will see agri-food producers work directly with researchers and technology companies to find smart ways to produce more with less.
Blade is also a key player in an Alberta government program called Results Driven Agriculture Research, announced in March 2020. It has a budget of $370 million over 10 years for agriculture research projects. Like the other programs, the Alberta one matches producers with tech experts. Unlike the others, this program is led by producers.
Blade agrees that producers are pragmatic about taking on investment risk, but they’re keen to embrace innovation, whether it’s a new way to manage crops or a GPS technology to auto-steer tractors.
“Over the last 10 years, our faculty has received tens of millions of dollars out of the pockets of farmers, through their commodity groups, because they are just rock-solid on investments in research,” Blade says.
“There always has to be a reason. It has to make things easier, faster, better — producers have seen that new approaches are going to pay off.”
The Next Generation
The future of farming is about new ideas, but it’s also about new blood.
There’s the generational factor — the average age of a Canadian farmer in 2016 was 55, a situation Blade says is untenable. But there’s also the need for new experts: students who might otherwise go into computing, sciences or engineering.
“Whenever you’re dealing in biological systems, it’s never a flat line. You’re always on the escalator going down because you have to fight insects and disease and weather and all the rest of it,” Blade says. “But the very complexity of those problems seems to be attracting the most creative individuals.”
Aidan Heaman is a good example of one of those creative types. He grew up on a seed farm near Virden, Man., and followed his dreams of an engineering career to the U of A.
Purely by accident, Heaman stumbled upon an article about aquaponics and was hooked by the system’s efficiency. That led him to start a student club on campus, the University of Alberta Permaculture Group and, in turn, the club led him to Ahmad and the AllFactory. The student club will help run the aquaponics system.
Along the way, Heaman discovered that you can take the boy off the farm but he can still work in the food industry.
“Food is something that’s kind of close to me,” says Heaman, who finished his degree in December and is now working as a building systems coordinator for PCL Construction. “I know that I want to someday find myself contributing to food security … helping create some of the infrastructures that we can use to have a really good, sustainable food future.”