Innovation key to agriculture advancement

Investment in future | Research and product development will allow early detection of disease and infestations

The efficiency of food production didn’t change much from biblical times to 1830.

“Growing 100 bushels of wheat in 1830 required five acres of land and 300 man hours of labour, same as in biblical times,” says Howard Dahl, president of Amity Technology, which specializes in leading edge agricultural equipment.

He is best known on the Prairies as the man who founded the Concord air drill company. At various times during his entrepreneurial career, he has owned and managed Bobcat, Steiger Tractor, Concord and now Amity Technology.

Dahl was in Winnipeg Nov. 18 as keynote speaker at the Agri-Innovation Forum, which brings together potential investment partners and agricultural innovators who need venture capital.

Dahl said that each technological step in farming allowed the human population to expand.

Mechanization crept into most aspects of farming between 1830 and 1890. The crude seed drills and combines of 1890 were powered either by horses or steam, but efficiency was vastly improved compared to 1830. Growing 100 bu. of wheat on five acres now required only 50 man hours.

Efficiency had not increased appreciably by the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It still took 20 man hours to grow 100 bu. of wheat on five acres.

The big jump in crop production efficiency happened in the 1970s, when the production of 100 bu. of wheat required only four man hours and three acres. Bigger and better equipment, crop protection chemicals and increased fertilizer use contributed to the increase.

Technological advances are now arriving at a blistering pace. Growing 100 bu. of wheat requires just 30 minutes of manpower and 1.5 acres of land.

Dahl said this 100 bu. of wheat timeline matters because investment in agricultural technology is investment in the future of the human race.

Earlier projections said the human race would peak at six billion people by 2040, but that figure was recently updated to nine billion people by 2040.


Where will the food come from to feed so many people, especially considering that humanity cannot find a way to feed its current population?

He said millions of acres have yet to be developed in South America, Russia, China and Africa, and the in-creased population will survive and thrive if venture capital and innovative agricultural equipment are applied to this challenge.

However, the planet will have a serious crisis on its hands if the venture capital and agricultural inventions don’t materialize.

Dahl said the Canadian prairie provinces and northern Great Plains states experienced the same thing on a much smaller scale 40 years ago.

“Historically, we’ve seen little or no agricultural innovation when times are good,” he said.

“ Innovation comes with necessity, when we’re forced to improve.”

Dahl said the Concord air drill gained popularity in the early days of the zero-till movement.

“The zero-till movement is a good example of necessity. We were in a long dry spell in the 1970s and nobody had any idea when it would end. Right around 1980, a small group of forward thinking farmers got together and formed the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.”

He said the farmer-led movement quickly fostered research and innovation at universities, chemical and implement companies, government departments and farmyards.

“These were the early pioneers in a time of need,” he said.


“Some had an emotional attachment to the concept of taking care of Mother Earth. Others simply saw the economic advantage of better utilization of moisture and fertilizer.”

Dahl said precision farming is the next frontier in agriculture, and the smart research and development money is focused on advanced anticipation of crop conditions before the moment of treatment.

“It’s called preventive maintenance and it’s attracting venture investment,” he said.

“Early detection of a plant disease, insect infestation, weed invasion or other problem will happen long in advance so farmers can address the problem before it develops.

Also, there’s investment going into variable seed research. Seed varieties can be changed on-the-go according to conditions in different parts of the field. All of these factors will work together to allow farmers to be more profitable.”

He said this is where venture capital in agriculture is headed.

Dahl said he grew up in a privileged setting, not because of the family’s financial position but in terms of expectations.

His grandfather’s last name was Melroe and his claim to fame is the Melroe skid steer loader, which was named Bobcat.

“In our household, we were constantly surrounded by new ideas and new technology all the time. And we were all part of those discussions,” he said.

“I recall that even when he was on his deathbed, my father’s mind was still pushing for new ideas. Two weeks before he died, I remember walking into the room and he asked, ‘what are you doing that’s interesting? What new products are you working on?’ That’s just the way he was.”


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  • ed

    Innovation is not a bad thing, but it certainly has it’s limitations. Zero till was a good innovation but was quickly hijacked by the likes of Monsanto. Now crop diseases are rampant do to the over use of chemicals which has lead to using more fungicides than ever in history. GMOs gone wild have lead to even more chemical use to combat insects resistant to BT corn (a corn with insecticide built right into the food we eat) and resistant weeds. This vast increase in chemical use is driving up cancer rates in North America as well as causing many other serious health disorders in ourselves and our children. There is now a major move back to tillage in agriculture and a drive back to our organic roots in an attempt to curb this man made disaster. Just like the development of dynamite, some people will exploit these things for profit and you can see where that has got us. In a world that grows 10 times more cereal grains annually than the human population of the earth could ever eat, if the will to use present technology to distribute it where ever there, growing more is only squandering the earth’s resources and polluting it’s environment at the same time. The majority of the grain we grow today is feed to livestock at conversion rates as low as negative ten to one, put through ethanol plants at carbon fuel conversion rates the equivalent of negative thirty to one, is made into alcohol products, is eaten by rodents, goes bad in transport as a finished product, or at the back of our fridges, cupboards or freezers, is tossed out because it is off a bit, is not what we feel like today or we are full up, and now rots in piles on the ground on the prairies due to logistical problems cause by destroying the old CWB. Better technology outside of food distribution and by default some wealth redistribution does not make any of this better and indeed is making things much worse. We are concerned about world population growth but will not for a second allow the spread of the only thing known to slow it down, and that is higher levels of affluence. The threat of getting rid of our third world cheap labor pool to produce cheap retail products, the mass effort and technologies then applied to distribute these tons of cheap products to the rich via state of the art container ship using hugh amounts of fossil fuel and the associated monstrous profits is just to great. Can’t have that. Feeding the world at this time is just simply not possible or will have to wait, but rest assured we are going to keep on trying.

    • Amelia Jordan

      GE crops with Bt protein are not harmful to many animals outside of the Coleptera and Lepidoptera families of insects. In fact, we eat approximately 10,000 times more natural pesticides a day in our fruit and veggies than synthetic pesticides.

      “In it, he and his coauthors outline that we eat an estimated 1.5 grams of natural pesticides a day, “which is about 10,000 times more” than the amount of synthetic pesticide residues we eat. This amount would be significantly higher in vegetarians and vegans. As an example, the authors provide a list of 49 different pesticides found in cabbage alone. The concentrations of these pesticides are in parts per thousand or parts per million, whereas the amount of synthetic pesticides we find on our food are in the parts per billion range. ”

      Do you have any data that back up your claims that we are using more fungicides than ever before, and that they are driving crop diseases? I can’t remember the last time we had a huge famine due to a crop disease, but we have records of them going back to our earliest stone carvings. How about a casual link between cancer and agrichemicals, even though cancer death rates are down 20% in the past 20 years and cancer diagnosis rates have been declining or are stable.

      “Cancer death rates have been continuously declining for the past 2 decades. Overall, the risk of dying from cancer decreased by 20% between 1991 and 2010. Progress has been most rapid for middle-aged black men, among who death rates have declined by approximately 50%.”

  • ed

    Cancer rates are now spiking hard in third world nations as they ramp up their agricultural chemical usage. If you overlay the start and ag. chemical usage in North America and the corresponding spike in cancer rates 20 years later with third world chemical usage and the corresponding spike in cancer rates that they are charting, they almost perfectly line up. Only the time period is different. Almost all studies show vast increases in most cancers with better diagnosis only partially responsible. The general public is very aware that cancer rates are rampant now and that any study to the contrary is design flawed to death and applies methodologies (another word that means: “rationalizing lies to appear as if they may be the truth”) in an effort to calm the peoples concern about the damage that greedy corporations are inflicting on our world and the health problems associated with this. There is proof of deceit even in the comments by chemical companies in these posts as very few farmers can remember their fathers spraying any fungicides “zero” , a spray plane was a piper cub with a boom and a small square tank and their grandfathers didn’t even have sprayers. So I guess fungicide use is vastly up or it is still zero!

  • Compaction !!

    You obviously have you facts all messed up , the 70’s were the wettest years on record , the snowiest winters and the wettest summers . Fescue crops in the peace country were the best ever grown .
    Wheat crops set records without fertilizer on our farms that weren’t touched until 2011 . 1997 was wet but the crops were poor , things just flooded that year , I believe Henderson lake set the record to be the wettest place on Earth that year . But 1973 was my dads year to shine . In 1974 he bought everything new . The bumper crops stayed in the bin till my dads first tandem truck rolled of the lot . Zero till came in because people needed to tighten their belts financially and had to
    Learn to do things by yourself . Because it was the beginning of the end if the family farm . Kids were off to university and the like to find themselves . The appeal of taking over the family farm was longer appealing . So farmers did what they know best , learn to do it themselves . At the time they thought they had the answer zero till . We all know to well what a blunder that was with the current need for vertical tillage tools , that no one can afford , a normal disc is priced beyond most farmers reach , but a high speed disc , let’s mortgage the farm to combat the compaction disaster left behind from zero till . Those whom stuck to their guns and adopted minimum till are the winners in this game . We took a penetrometer , to test compaction on 100 zero till fields and 100 minimum till fields accross alberta . It was found that the zero till fields were suffering compacted root zones , hence the farmers soon realized why their neighbours minimum till fields were out yielding their own . Let it be noted there was some compaction on the zero till farms but to a much lessor degree .
    Hence the need for vertical tillage , high speed discs , shallow plows etc ,, guess my father had it right all along ,he would yell at us if the plow was too deep or the discing was too slow !! Lol anyways long story short , zero till has held many farmers back from reaching their true production potential and now created fir them one of the largest headaches ever faced by modern day farmers . Spend big money they don’t have to produce a crop they can’t sell ,or pass the headache on to someone else . That is what they are doing , jumping ship as it were , a sinking ship due to zero till I might add . We tested many fields , to obtain the the fracturing required to help rescue the soil requires very expensive tool bars and big horse power . The only hope to save some till ruined soil , is the lower fuel prices if diesel follows gas by spring time , I myself am trying to fix the problem on my farm , like tonnes of old ideas , the zero till tool bars are being parked in the trees , along with the horse and buggy if yesture years , the 70 ft custom made high speed disc costing me a woping 450,000 , is being pulled by my 750 hp big bud tractor at 10 miles an hour , soon to be twin turbo and 1000 hp , our heavy gumbo needs hp to pull a disc that big 10mph ,, we hit spots that sometimes kill the 1150 cummins , we had to put an oversized clutch in the tractor as it was only designed for 650 hp small by today’s standards , so to keep ahead of the jones’s . The big bud tractor saved us 350-500 thousand on a new tractor , depending on what you buy and sunk the money into verticle tillage tools . We demoed many types and found the high speed disc did the best job. This year while every struggled with zero till and poor yields , our crops were 20-30 bu more in wheat and and canola . With the same rainfall . My biggest challenge will be to maintain the soil at this level . Now with increased traffic on the land from sprayers and grain carts and heavier and heavier equipment . The challenge will continue .

  • ed

    We found that these disc machines would not get to the bottom of our 6 to 12 inch ruts and it was only the frost that was reducing compaction so you may be on to something with those extra passes with heavy grain carts, seed carts and sprayers. These disc machines tend to over dry the hills in the spring plus compact the low ground, both reducing yield. We found that if you came with the drill a day or two later you would be half a width closer to the low ground and have avoided the pass. Like you said fuel and big iron is not cheap!