Here’s a buzzword you might have heard lately: smart agriculture. If you’re one of many who wonders what the heck that even means, wonder no more. Dawn Trautman, program manager of smart agriculture and food innovation at Alberta Innovates, knows all about smart agriculture. Her job is to cut through all the noise to help farmers understand what it is, what it means and how they can use it to achieve greater returns.
SMART AGRICULTURE EXPLAINED
At its simplest, smart agriculture (also called smart farming) is an approach to farm management that leverages emerging and existing technologies. It often uses big data, the cloud, internet-connected devices, robotics, sensors and more to help monitor, assess, track and improve farm performance. It’s everything from a yield monitor on your combine to biosensors in your barn.
“It’s an abstract concept, trying to break down technological barriers and make it accessible to people,” says Trautman. “It’s tricky when people don’t really know what you do or how you can help. The whole point is to bring value to them.”
Trautman and the crew at Alberta Innovates, the largest research and innovation agency in the province, support the creation of new digital tools, plus the modification of existing ones from other industries, and apply them to agriculture.
Some examples of this are Alberta Innovates’ development of a biosensor to detect the presence of Fusarium graminearum spores and alert growers when there are enough of them to cause fusarium head blight. It also developed genetics indices for Angus cattle to help producers make more informed breeding decisions for greater profitability.
“We are trying to make things available more real time — to put these automated digital tools into the hands of producers in a cost-effective way,” says Trautman. “We know farming is a small-margin, sometimes negative-margin business so it has to work for them.”
NOT JUST FOR THE KIDS
Trautman regularly liaises with outside companies to scale up early-stage businesses into operations that can survive in the open market. An overarching goal is to make any technology as widely available and understood by the greatest number of people, regardless of age or ability.
And while smart agriculture is still a relatively new term, Trautman believes it will continue to gain momentum and farmers’ hesitations will gradually fade away as it becomes more common. She adds that smart tech is much more pervasive than people may realize. Millennials and Gen Zs can help bridge the gap, too, since they are often exposed to more technologies and can be earlier adopters in certain cases.
“Younger producers (can) show the older generation that maybe it’s not so frightening, especially with something very common, such as a smartphone,” she says. “If the technology is viable and you’re happy with the returns you make, it can be adopted.”
Trautman believes in smart agriculture so much that when a mutual acquaintance told her about Nuffield scholarships back in 2016, she thought this could be the perfect way to blend her daily work life into scholarly research for the benefit of Canadian farmers. Her research focus is to understand the economic implications of adopting smart agricultural practices.
“This is kind of that next level of putting it all together in a systems approach,” she says of her research. “I want to make it a little less academic and a little more friendly for the industry.”
Nuffield scholars typically globetrot as part of their research and Trautman had bookmarked tour stops around the world, including Australia, China, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Israel and U.K., to learn how those countries have adopted and responded to incoming smart technologies for on-farm applications.
However, COVID-19 all but derailed her intrepid investigation. Five days after arriving in Australia to kick off that year’s program with other scholars, the wheels came off the bus and the pandemic sent everyone scurrying back to their home countries.
Trautman — who has a biological sciences degree and two master’s degrees, one in agricultural economics, the other an MBA — continues to keep up on her project by poring over never-ending stacks of journals and news articles, from around the world, related to smart agriculture.
Time at home has also helped her hone her project more specifically to examine barriers to agri-tech adoption and develop an attributes-based guide, such as farm type, size or location, to bridge this knowledge gap. Her research, originally slated for presentation in August 2021, has now been pushed back 12 months.
DIGITAL-AGE COFFEE SHOP
At Alberta Innovates, Trautman continues to focus on domestic implementation of smart agriculture and continues to monitor international trends.
“We are hitting that peak of people being excited and investing,” she says, adding that as technologies increase and tech companies continue to pop up, the smart agriculture bubble could be due for a reckoning, since consolidation has not yet occured on a wide scale. “I don’t necessarily see it slowing down right now. The trough might not be far off, but it might not come, there’s a lot of excitement out there.”
She envisions smart agriculture a driver of more positive, informed conversation around food production, as well. Urbanites have arguably never been more interested in where their food comes from and smart agriculture goes hand in hand with such curiosity. “You can track beans from field to grocery shelf, or beef from pasture to freezer,” she says.
She also thinks agronomists will be key to managing changes in technology on the farm and that, increasingly, this job will include a digital skillset. “I think there will be an integration of the two spaces. People will say, ‘I want to do this on my farm,’ and we will continue to see people and companies saying back, ‘I have the solution,'” she explains.
“In that sense, it’s more similar to the traditional coffee shop model where farmers are happy to talk about things, share what did or didn’t work on their farm and just get the word out.”