The annual Ag in Motion outdoor farm show hosted by the Manitoba Co-operator’s parent company, Glacier FarmMedia just west of Saskatoon every July has evolved into an event that attracts more than 30,000 farmers from all over the world.
This year’s AIM featured 459 exhibitors on the 320-acre show site that included 32 acres of crop plots.
AIM and its sister show, Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show (COFS) held every September on the outskirts of Woodstock, Ont., have become another way for this company to do its job, a task traditionally rooted in connecting farmers with industry innovations through publications.
The appeal for farmers is the fact that these events are held outdoors on a site big enough that they can actually see new technology in action through daily demonstrations of new equipment on field-scale plots. But also offered are ideas for better ways to use old technology, through new research underscoring the value of looking after the basics, and new modes of delivery.
As much as these events showcase the plethora of great ideas designed to make farming better, they also highlight the increasing complexity in choosing where and how to invest.
Investing in innovation isn’t just about having enough funds. It’s about having the time to implement and the resources to make the most of it in the context of other operations on the farm.
Some decisions are relatively straightforward. For example, assessing whether a remote-controlled auger, one of the innovations on display, has a fit depends on how badly it’s needed. Will it save time? Will it save labour? Will it be safer?
But autonomous equipment, such as the DOT, requires a much bigger leap, as well as a larger investment. Farmers are warming to the idea but it’s a cultural shift as well as a technological one.
Some technologies consolidate power within an increasingly small collection of players, while others serve to empower individual decision-making.
Xarvio, a division of Bayer CropScience, launched a free crop-scouting app that combines artificial intelligence (AI) with crowdsourcing of photos of commonly found weeds. When farmers photograph a plant with a mobile phone, it feeds into the identification algorithm, essentially making the app more robust the more it gets used.
Less visible is the surge in sensor technology that has created a collision between Big Iron and Big Data unlike anything that’s ever been experienced in agriculture. “The latest John Deere tractor has anywhere from 110 to 300 sensors on it depending on the features you put on,” David Yee, vice-president of operations for the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI), told audiences in his daily presentations.
The ability to monitor, measure and analyze combined with blockchain distribution systems is making it possible to deliver traceability to end-users, and that fosters trust in the system, he noted.
With all the focus on the new stuff increasing productivity, sometimes the simple basics — such as reducing harvest loss — get lost in the shuffle.
When it comes to food waste, consumers are by far the worst offenders in the food chain. But reducing the amount of grain that is lost or damaged during harvest affects how much farmers get paid.
For example, PAMI and the Canola Council of Canada are going to develop a mobile-friendly interactive “combine optimization tool” that helps farmers find the causes of grain losses, quality damage or efficiency during harvest. When engineers delved into the issue, they found more than 50 ways a farmer can lose money during harvest, many of them related to calibration and speed.
It’s not a shiny new piece of machinery — but it could save enough money to buy one.
The hundreds of ideas that converged at the Ag in Motion site have merit. The danger, however, is viewing them in isolation, as they represent linear solutions to specific problems, rather than a holistic approach to the challenges ahead.
University of Michigan researchers touched on the need for a more holistic approach to research and development in food systems in a recent paper calling for “an urgently needed transformation” of current practices.
“(C)urrent approaches to finding solutions through applied academic research are too narrow and treat the food system as a collection of isolated components within established disciplines such as agronomy, sociology or nutritional science,” they say.
They say solutions must become “trans-disciplinary” if they are to address the future needs of feeding the world.
The farmers’ role in this equation is vital and that’s what makes what happens at AIM and COFS so magical. Farmers evaluate the dizzying array of options, not according to their single purpose, but for how they fit in the “whole” of their farm.
That’s how true innovation comes to life.