Alta. college focuses on new ag technology

Lakeland College hopes its bachelor of agriculture technology program will prepare professionals for a high-tech future

A new bachelor degree program said to be the first of its kind in Canada aims to prepare students for emerging technological changes.

Although farmers have always sought to be more efficient and productive, the current rate of change has been “absolutely remarkable,” said Michael Crowe, vice-president of academic and research at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta.

“The type of technology that is emerging — the satellites and the robots and the artificial intelligence and the drones — and how they’re being used and the potential of this technology I think is different today than it’s ever been.”

The college plans to launch a two-year bachelor of agriculture technology program in September for an initial class of up to 30 students, he said.

It will include a new 8,000-sq.-foot agricultural technology centre on the Vermilion campus that will feature an on-farm lab. The centre is slated to open later this year.

Students must have a two-year diploma or higher in production agriculture, “whether that’s a crop sciences background or livestock background, or even an ag business background,” said Crowe.

“And then what we’re going to do is, we’re going to layer on top of that two years of training in agriculture technology, and so we’re going to introduce those students to new and emerging technologies that are disrupting commercial agriculture today.”

The program was created after industry feedback indicated a shortage of professionals to bridge the gap between technology and agricultural production, said Crowe.

Experts foresee an eventual future of smart farms where most tasks are fully automated, with producers supervising operations remotely via tablets or smartphones.

Farmer decisions will be guided by computer analytics of data collected from aerial drones rather than the current boots on the ground, he said.

“They have the potential to really increase the profitability of primary agriculture, which is a backbone sector in our economy here in Alberta and across Canada.”

Students will spend a year on campus learning about new technologies and how to apply them through real-life experience at the college’s student-managed farm. Their final year will involve learning on the job through industry placements with technology companies and providers.

Graduates from the program are expected to be mainly employed by data management companies, precision agriculture technology firms, equipment manufacturers and dealerships, but some will also likely return to their farms. | Lakeland College photo

“They’ll be working in crop and livestock service centres and input centres, service companies, equipment dealers, those kinds of things, so it’s something we’re really excited about,” said Crowe.

Crowe expected most of the program’s graduates will find jobs at data management companies, precision agriculture technology firms, equipment manufacturers and dealerships.

But some of them will likely return home to start farming “with a whole other skill set around technology that hopefully will help them be more productive and more profitable,” he said.

Farmers are already using equipment ranging from auto-steer tractors to robotic technologies for dairy production, he said. Things such as combines or fertilizer equipment increasingly have a built-in ability to collect large amounts of data ranging from yields and application rates to weather conditions, he said.

However, farmers may not always know how to best use such information to make better decisions. “I think there’s a bit of a gap right now in what to do with all that data.”

Some farmers have been early adopters of aerial drones, which use sensors and digital imaging to identify problems, such as plant stress. Early detection and treatment can cut costs and reduce a farm’s environmental footprint by minimizing the guesswork for pesticides.

Many producers are waiting to see if the benefits of certain technologies are worth the cost.

“But as that technology improves, and as the cost of that technology comes down, adoption increases, and I think we are seeing that in the ag sector already.”

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