“It’s hard to live in Saskatchewan and not feel somehow connected to agriculture”
– Colby McClelland, SREDA
With a land area nearly three times that of the UK, but a population of just over 1.3 million, it’s easy to see why agriculture is the major industry in the province. Home to just over 40% of Canada’s cultivated farmland, the scale of production of cereals and oilseeds is simply staggering.
Our mission last month to Saskatoon through the HARVEST programme (through which Agri-Tech East managed the UK applications) saw 8 global winners, including Itaka Crop Solution, Hummingbird Technologies and TIMAC Agro (the parent company of our member Timac Agro UK) attend Ag in Motion – the largest outdoor agricultural expo in Western Canada.
Big scale, big challenges
Everything relating to agriculture here is big. Machinery, field acreage, scale of production……but with such scale comes its own challenges.
- Managing water – with increasingly erratic weather patterns, there is either too much, or not enough water.
- Tight rotations – also causes its own issues (some ironically comment that for some farmers, their rotation includes just two crops – canola and snow).
- Disease pressures – clubroot being a major challenge and the management of resistant weeds. Neonics are use mainly as a seed treatment and the race is on to find alternatives.
- Heavy reliance on chemicals – Some farmers are starting to talk about improving soils health, but there is no formal mandate or incentive (or metrics) for implementation.
- Precision agriculture is coming (with reduction in labour and costs as the main driver) – as is the recognition of the importance of data to help benchmark farm productivity and also to show good practice to consumers.
Saskatchewan farmers know they need to do something differently. But at present it’s not clear what, or how, or the costs involved to them. Finding a path to define, create and preserve healthy soils is just one challenge they face.
Risk sharing to encourage data aggregation
Against a backdrop of farmers wanting to hold onto their own data (in the – admittedly probably vain – hope they will receive remuneration for it at some point), there is a move towards encouraging aggregation of data across farms – major agronomy company Farmers’ Edge has its own platform and is encouraging farmers to share anonymised data.
But still the suggestion remains between Saskatchewan farmers that their data will be another “crop” for which they can be paid. This is probably unlikely, but better data management is poised to bring other benefits as well as informing crop planning and production.
One of the major insurance companies has partnered with Farmers’ Edge to use aggregated farm data to create a risk transfer tool for growers, whereby cover can be provided to de-risk improvements that farmers implement based on knowledge generated from the data tool. An innovative risk sharing model that – according to the company – will result in long-term “wins” for both farmers and insurers.
Weather and soil moisture key concerns
Two of the major tech assets being promoted at the Ag in Motion expo were weather stations and soil moisture probes.
Dependency on the weather can’t be under-estimated – and as one agronomist put it “listen to your roots” – using soil moisture probes to help assess the status of the plants to give confidence in the application of inputs. Drones and field mapping technologies were present, but not, we sensed, in widespread commercial use for predictive crop modelling and yield mapping.
With scale comes the potential to be less precise – but that precision is coming……
And what of research?
Connections between farmers and researchers are mainly via the “Producer Groups” or levy boards – for pulses, flax, wheat, barley and others which is more on the applied end of the spectrum.
Agronomists – both independent and those associated with distributors are trusted sources of information for farmers.
There is a major concentration of research activity in agriculture – both crop and veterinary at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, as well as the Institute for Global Food Security, and an agri-tech cluster around “Innovation Place” – the technology park which is home to 20 buildings and provides infrastructure such as glasshouses which are available for tenant companies to use.
The provincial government in Saskatchewan is very enabling. From research funding to infrastructure, teaching and production, public investment is visible and of high quality. It is clear that incoming businesses – or those looking to partner with organisations in the province are likely to receive a warm welcome.