Smart farm network harnesses research power

Olds College research team members install a Metos sensor at the college's Smart Farm. | Olds College photo

A national network seen as the first of its kind in the world to promote the development of smart farming is being launched by two colleges in Alberta and the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm in Saskatchewan.

The Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network will be greater than the sum of its parts, said Joy Agnew, associate vice-president of applied research at Olds College, which is leading the $2.9 million project.

Smart farm technology is rapidly advancing, “so our ability to support the development of the technology needs to keep pace, so this is truly an example of a situation where one plus one plus one equals five, rather than the three core sides working individually,” she said.

The network currently involves the Olds College Smart Farm near Olds, Alta., the Lakeland College Student-Managed Farm in Vermilion, Alta., and the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm in Langham, Sask., which is operated by the company that owns The Western Producer.

However, work is underway to not only add other members across Canada to the network but to link up with other smart farms around the world.

The initiative, which was announced June 17, is an example of how “technology reaches beyond regions and beyond borders,” said Josie Van Lent, dean of agriculture technology and applied research at Lakeland College.

Each of the three founding farms have installed wireless sensors and devices by Metos Canada. They will allow scientists to gather data across different land bases and agricultural zones on everything from water management and field monitoring to soil conditions and weather forecasting.

Insects and diseases can travel by following prevailing wind patterns, said Blake Weiseth, director of research and demonstration at the Glacier FarmMedia Discovery Farm and agriculture research chair at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

The technology could allow researchers to work together to track how long it takes for an infestation to spread from Olds College in central Alberta to the farm about 600 kilometres to the east, he said.

It’s an example “of the power of having this common suite of instruments in a network where you can easily share that data, and you already have the ability to make very quick decisions in terms of management as well.”

The network’s first project will be to evaluate the connectivity, functionality and value of data collected from the sensors.

One of the goals for each network member will be to “convert that into actionable intelligence for use on their farms and then sharing that with the other members in a data or information repository in a way that can then be extracted and utilized elsewhere if applicable,” said Agnew, who is also the network’s principal investigator.

The network will provide data and expertise to help farmers, industry and technology developers better understand, use and develop smart agricultural technologies, she said.

The Olds College Smart Farm is currently researching such areas as autonomous self-driving farm equipment, satellite imagery and remote sensing that allows for real-time decision making.

Other technologies include using artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify problems with animal health as they occur, she said.

“The list is extensive of the types of technologies that are currently available and will become available in the next four to five years.”

However, adopting them can mean farmers must make a substantial investment to do things differently, “and with one growing season or one production cycle, it’s always high risk if things don’t work out,” she added.

The network will allow technologies developed elsewhere in the world to be tested to make sure they’re practical for Canadian farmers. It will also evaluate technologies created for one type of agriculture to see if they work in another sector, said Van Lent.

For example, many of the precision agriculture technologies used by western Canadian wheat and canola growers could also work for strawberry producers, she said.

Agnew said smart farming could also be applied to regenerative agriculture through electronic fence line detectors or virtual fencing for remote grazing management.

“A big part of regenerative ag is alternative grazing management practices that involve moving the animals around a lot more frequently than with conventional grazing, which can be problematic if the grazing areas are far away from home base, so there’s a role for technology to play in the management of those types of activities.”

Although agriculture in Canada is as diverse as the country itself, there are elements of production practices that can be shared, said Nicole Gaudette, program manager at the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN).

“But it’s that sharing element, it’s going to make Canada positioned a lot stronger compared to other jurisdictions worldwide when it comes to not just smart farm, but ag tech in general,” she said. “And Canada is one of the top countries in the world when it comes to ag tech, but we want to be stronger.”

As the network evolves, it will be increasingly funded through fees from collaborations and partnerships with companies, said Agnew.

Twenty-five percent of the funding for the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network is currently from industry, with the rest from government sources. It includes about $1.1 million during the next three years from CAAIN, which is a not-for-profit company launched in 2019 through federal funding and in-kind contributions from Alberta Innovates.

Agnew said one factor behind the network’s formation is the withdrawal of governments such as Alberta from direct involvement in agricultural research.

Scientists and technicians were among the hundreds of provincial government employees whose jobs were cut in 2020. The Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) fund was instead created as a non-profit, producer-led company operating at arm’s length to determine and fund agricultural research priorities in the province.

“And when there’s a gap formed, such as what’s happened the last couple of years (in terms of extension), we as colleges want to do everything we can to fill it … so we built that into our overall mandate and activities within the network because of the importance to get independent, unbiased information into the hands of producers,” said Agnew.

Extension could include reports, newsletters, videos and presentations at agricultural events. A website, oldscollege.ca/smartfarmnetwork, will also be available.

Besides the college level, officials are conducting discussions with universities about joining the network, said Agnew, adding she could not identify them. The initiative could expand by least three additional sites within the next two years, she said.

Contact doug.ferguson@producer.com

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