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Pandemic highlights automation gaps – and possibilities

If ever there was an argument for automation in the agriculture sector, the ongoing pandemic brings it into stark relief.

These past months, businesses around the world have had to grapple with intense human resource challenges. But for some, automation – and new equipment – has been a saving grace.

Indeed, if ever there was an argument for automation in the agriculture sector, the ongoing pandemic brings it into stark relief. Of course, it also highlights the risk disparity between sectors and businesses where incorporating automation is much more difficult.

Grain flow (mostly) normal

Grain processors provide a good case study of business which, if new technology has been incorporated, are well situated to weather these strange days. According to one grain elevator owner and seed dealer I recently spoke to, for example, technology has allowed for delivery of product on farm “without the need for personal interaction.”

This particular business owner – who operates in central Ontario – reiterates that upgrades made to their processing facility in 2019 have allowed them to keep daily operations moving as usual, though with fewer people.

It’s amazing how taking about seven people out of the physical facility makes managing the space so much easier

“We have two bagging lines. Within the past two years one has been fully automated from bag-pickup to palletizing, and the other has a palletizer,” the elevator owner said. “We can shut things down for larger chunks of time. It gets people some time away. It’s amazing how taking about seven people out of the physical facility makes managing the space so much easier.”

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A worker takes a sample of soybeans that are delivered at a grain elevator to test the quality. - Photo: AFP
A worker takes a sample of soybeans that are delivered at a grain elevator to test the quality. - Photo: AFP

Business as usual thanks to automation

Millers, too, have told me automation and a comparatively less labour-intensive processing regimens mean it’s largely business as usual, barring necessary social-distancing practices.

Indeed, a spokesperson for Ardent Mills – a large North American flour supplier – says one of their main Canadian plants employs 30 or 40 people, but automation allows those people to operate at a distance, and on different shifts. Thus, reducing risk.

Risk not even distributed

Conditions in the vegetable and meat sectors are another story, however. As a rule, vegetable producers, whether field or greenhouse, rely on migrant labour to sow, harvest, and process crops. The degree to which a business relies on hands rather than hardware is determining whether success can be salvaged from the 2020 growing season.

Some asparagus growers have even written-off the year already

Asparagus growers in my home province, as an example, are still waiting for enough labour to pick the forthcoming early-season crop. Some have even written-off the year already. Operators of vegetable greenhouses too, have been and will continue to be worried as increasing numbers of migrant workers are required to keep production rolling through the peak summer season.

I imagine cannabis growers – a relatively new addition to Ontario’s agriculture sector – share many of these concerns, although demand for the product is likely to remain as strong as ever.

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Asparagus growers are still waiting for enough labour to pick the forthcoming early-season crop. - Photo: ANP
Asparagus growers are still waiting for enough labour to pick the forthcoming early-season crop. - Photo: ANP

The real disparity is in meat processing

As meat processing plants are forced to shut their doors, albeit temporarily, due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the backlog of product brings huge losses from the processors all the way back to the farmer, not to mention increasing supply-risks for more vulnerable consumers.

From a supply-chain-resilience standpoint, though, the human skill required in meat processing means automation is not practical or possible in every area (butchery is a craft, after all). Still, the art of meat cutting is only one part of meat processing.

Creative automation solutions

So much of day-to-day business involves mitigating risk, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say meat processors – and many other agricultural businesses – will, in the pandemic’s aftermath, engineer creative automation solutions wherever possible.

Those working in automation technology might have busy days ahead.

One comment

  • Paul B McNulty

    A valuable contribution to the topic of Automation in Agriculture.

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