Ag tech needs farm kids

Our younger generation needs to know its skills are needed in more areas than just a combine cab. This is where Teresa Vallotton’s coding camps come in

In a room overlooking a bustling trade show, 20 kids huddle over laptops. They’re trying to catch a thief.

Teresa Vallotton flashes pictures across the screen at the front of the room and asks them — is this the person who’s been stealing fuel from the tank on her yard?

The kids run facial recognition software and weed out the photos one by one until they find the user the program recognizes as unauthorized.

This is the second use for artificial intelligence they’ve learned in less than an hour at Vallotton’s “AI in a Day” coding camp, hosted at Manitoba Ag Days in January.

“It’s fun to see how kids can latch on to an idea and expand it, make it their own,” Vallotton said in an interview after the camp. The kids took the information and ran with it, she said.

“We don’t even know what the potential is when we let people do what they’re good at and what they enjoy,” she said.

For Vallotton, the camps are about teaching kids that just because they can’t drive a combine doesn’t mean they can’t work in agriculture. In fact, the future of farming is in technology and technology needs farm kids.

Runaway tech

“Technology is advancing quick,” said Farmers Edge CEO Wade Barnes. “This isn’t going away.”

In 10 years, drones, genetically modified plants (that change colour when a new pest is introduced), equipment repairs and diagnostics by phone may be commonplace, said Jitendra Paliwal, professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Manitoba.

Even now, Barnes said farmers probably don’t even know how much technology and artificial intelligence has affected their work.

Barnes’ company, Farmers Edge, uses artificial intelligence to build field prescription maps for optimizing crop inputs.

He also gave the example of a brand new John Deere, which may collect machine data (like health and efficiency), operations data (field task details, area worked, route travelled, crop harvested and yield data) and administrative data (users linked to the account, machines, and devices), according to John Deere’s website.

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Artificial intelligence can be used to take emotion and memory limitations out of decision-making, Vallotton said, but it can also preserve knowledge for the next generation.

“You cannot support gen-to-gen ag… if all the information is in one person’s brain,” Vallotton said.

Kids at Teresa Vallotton’s “AI in a Day” coding camp take selfies to use for facial recognition.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

She suggested that reluctant farmers need not dive into tech head first. Instead, they could experiment in small ways, or recruit their children or younger relatives to implement technology on their behalf.

This will show they value the younger generation’s skill set, she said, and also keep the technology gap from getting too big to overcome.

“It doesn’t have to be a giant leap, but we can’t stand still,” she said.

A technology asset

Not all farm kids want to, or are built to take over the family operation. But both Barnes and Vallotton say this doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for agriculture. In fact, agriculture technology needs these farm kids.

At Farmers Edge, the chief data officer is a farm kid from Saskatchewan.

“The level of expertise that he owns from being born on that farm is pretty valuable,” said Barnes.

Someone with working knowledge of farm operations can approach an ag tech with an understanding of how it will be used, said Paliwal.

“For instance – RFID tags in cattle. If you develop a device to scan the tag before vaccinating, you can keep accurate records for your herd health,” said Paliwal.

“Someone who understands the technical background of this may not understand that vaccinations can happen twice a year, and it can be a messy job — or how important it is to have accurate records because you can’t ship cattle immediately after giving them medication,” he said.

So, if a farm kid is thinking about going into tech, they’re wasted on a company like Netflix, said Barnes.

“(Farm kids) have an asset that 99 per cent of the population doesn’t have,” he said.

“Agriculture is the last frontier for the digital disruption,” Barnes said. This is a big opportunity for farm kids who don’t want to take over the family operation.

Creating tech-savvy kids

For Vallotton, beyond teaching kids at coding camps, she’s brought technology into her family farm in small but fun ways.

Kids at Teresa Vallotton’s “AI in a Day” coding camp take selfies to use for facial recognition.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

She’s taken up drone photography and includes her kids in flying the drone and viewing the videos and photos afterward. Her farm also signed up for a drone sprayer water trial.

“So they can see that we’re open to new ideas,” she told the Co-operator. “We want them to be open to new ideas.”

For kids interested in going into technology fields, Paliwal suggested some things to study now:

  • Learn basic coding (data science). This gives a foundation of how things work. Many schools are teaching it now, he said.
  • Take classes that utilize technology (keyboarding, etc.) since it’s likely they will be using a computer a lot.
  • Take business and finance courses and get exposure to an entrepreneurial or business environment.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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