Olds College in Alberta, Canada, has launched a cross-country Smart Farm network designed to trial and develop agriculture technologies and practices to help Canadian farmers solve Canadian farming problems.
As with other smart farm initiatives around the globe, the end goal is to accelerate the adoption of proven agricultural technologies and improved production overall. For those working within the network, though, the breadth and scale of the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network makes the initiative stand out.
Olds College officially launched its local Smart Farm in June, 2018. It’s currently comprised of 3,600 acres of land for crop and forage production, 1,000-head capacity feedlot, a commercial cow-calf herd, Purebred Red Angus beef herd, sheep flock, greenhouse, and other facilities where both existing and emerging smart technologies are researched and developed.
Initiative trialing ag-tech for the country’s geographically diverse agriculture sector
Dr. Joy Agnew, vice-president of research at the Central Alberta post-secondary institution, says the wider Canadian Smart Farm network is a newer concept, but the idea has been in development since the formation of Olds College’s original Smart Farm. The intention was, and is, to build a collaborative framework for sharing of data and expertise to help farmers, industry, and technology developers better understand, utilize, and develop smart agriculture technologies and systems.
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Currently, the national Smart Farm network is comprised of seven institutions and groups – including other post secondary institutions as well as commercial enterprises – from central Alberta to Southwestern Ontario. While some research projects are shared between locations, others are unique to specific locations.
“We realized there’s only so much one Smart farm can do in terms of supporting and accelerating the adoption of tech and practices. Canada is really agriculturally diverse…Every site brings something a little different. A requirement to joining the network is [a desire to] increase their expertise and ability to work in precision-ag space,” says Agnew.
Smart weed identification is one project which involves more than one Smart Farm participant. Both Olds College and Enterprise Machine Learning and Intelligence Initiative – a Manitoba-based commercial enterprise – are contributing to an identification database to help spur green-on-green detection of different weed species, and see how detection works across different geographies.
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“A spinoff to that, which is exciting, is early herbicide resistance detection – that’s detecting resistance very early. We’re doing this with a start up. It could be a massive game changer,” says Agnew. She adds another common project is analyzing what weather stations and soil sensors best predict growing conditions and related production pressures in field crops, and how where in the field they are located can improve or detract from data accuracy. By dispersing the project across multiple participant locations, says Agnew, data anomalies and good predictors of disease pressure, for example, can be more readily identified.
Autonomy and autonomous platforms are also being investigated by many current Smart Farm participants. At Olds College, professor and technology integration specialist Yevgen Mykhaylichenko has been working with Raven to adapt and troubleshoot the company’s OMNiPOWER platform, as well as and other similar technologies. Mykhaylichenko began the project after the college purchased it’s first platform, as well as the accompanying seeder, spreader, and sprayer, in 2019, being asked to manage this and other autonomous equipment projects because of his prior experience with new technologies in and outside his home country of Ukraine.
In Canada, the number of people actively working with autonomous agriculture technologies is comparatively small
“It was a really different implement. No one knew how to operate this robot. Then they asked if I’d like to develop robotics on the college’s Smart Farm,” he says, adding that, in Ukraine, there are approximately 20 specialists like himself. In Canada, the number of people actively working with autonomous agriculture technologies is comparatively small.
“Every time when I travel to Ukraine, I learn something from them. They are crazy. In Ukraine, we have many companies that started drone spraying, but here in Canada it just started spraying pesticides in Alberta this April. In Canada we are five years behind if we talk about drone spraying. Same for other technologies,” says Mykhaylichenko.
“You can’t learn everything from books. You have to see things in practice. It takes some time here in Canada to implement these technologies for local farmers. We can bring what we learn in Ukraine here, and also bring what we have in Canada to Ukraine. It’s an advantage to all immigrants working in precision agriculture. We can see the pluses of both countries.”
All projects under the Canadian Smart Farm banner are, as Agnew reiterates, designed to provide unbiased analyses on agricultural technologies, and in the process, improve perceptions and adoption of those technologies. The sheer size and diversity of Canada’s agricultural landscape has to be accounted for in this process – which is exactly what the network addresses. Like Mykhaylichenko, other network participants are also looking outside Canada’s borders for guidance and ideas.
“Smart Farm network members just came back from Agri-EPI Centre in the United Kingdom. That’s been operating for much longer, and there’s a tremendous model and support structure. This gave us some lessons to consider,” says Agnew.
“The main takeaway I took from it – agriculture looks and sounds very different in the UK, but when it came to talking to the farmers themselves and hearing why they’re considering certain technology and tools, it’s the same thing. They’re focuses on cost of production, affordability, and sustainability. Despite all differences, that’s what we’re trying to focus on.”