Saskatchewan. farmers adopting locally developed agricultural technologies
At any time during the growing season, Jake Leguee can check an app and see exactly how much moisture is in the soil on his farm.
He’s installed half a dozen weather stations on his property — third-generation land he and his family farm near Filmore, Saskatchewan, in the southeast of the province — to make his operations more efficient. The stations track a variety of factors that affect crops, such as air and soil temperature, humidity levels and wind. The app, developed by a Saskatchewan agricultural technology company, helps him interpret the data.
« It’s really made a difference in how we manage our crops, and it makes us more environmentally sustainable because we don’t use inputs if we don’t need them, » says Leguee.
The federal government’s goal to reduce emissions from fertilizer use by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, which was released two years ago, revived in the public consciousness this spring and summer due to a series of consultations on how to achieve this.
But Leguee says Canadian farmers have a long history of working to make their operations, including the use of inputs, as efficient as possible, and a willingness to learn, try and adopt new technologies is essential to the job.
This is part of the reason why Saskatchewan has become a hub for emerging agricultural technologies, according to several industry experts. Additionally, farmers in this province have a proven track record of embracing new technologies and supporting local startups, says Sean O’Connor, managing director of Emmertech, a $60 million Conexus venture capital fund. dollars focused on Saskatchewan ag-tech startups.
“Farmers are the most innovative business owners in Canada as far as we’re concerned, and they’re looking for new solutions,” he says.
« You can’t build ag-tech companies on Bay Street. They belong in the ag ecosystems, where you interact directly with the industry itself. »
« A great place to do business »
Croptimistic Technology is one of the Saskatchewan-based agricultural technology companies feeling the local love. Launched in 2018 at Naicam, it develops personalized soil, water and topography (SWAT) maps for farmers.
« It’s a great place to do business, » says founder Cory Willness, who worked as an agronomist for many years before starting the company. « In Western Canada in general, there are a lot of farmers who are early adopters. »
Croptimistic’s SWAT maps help farmers identify exactly which parts of their fields need nutrients and which don’t, Willness says, which could translate to around 15% more profit. He gave this example: If a farmer spends $5 million on fertilizer and seed, but 5% of his acres are written off, that’s $250,000 lost.
Croptimistic is in good company. In Regina, Precision AI has developed artificially intelligent drones that perform fully automated precision spraying, and Ground Truth Ag has created technology that helps farmers analyze and record grain samples in real time to better understand crop quality. harvests. At nearby Emerald Park, Crop Intelligence has an app that allows farmers to analyze data from their weather stations to make better production decisions, improve crop quality and profits.
Better yield potential
This technology could not only save farmers money through reduced farm inputs, but also improve yield potential, says Dr. Stuart Smyth, Research Chair in Agribusiness Innovation at the ‘University of Saskatchewan.
For example, if a farmer has 320 acres and can determine that the disease affects only 5% of his crops, the cost of applying fertilizer to the entire land may be higher than the lost crops. .
“I tell my students that over the next decade the use of these digital technologies definitely has the potential to really revolutionize production agriculture,” says Smyth.
Agriculture accounted for 10% of Canada’s total emissions in 2019, according to the federal government, and from 2005 to 2019, fertilizer use increased by 71%.
« It’s a a win for the farmer, and a win for the environment“, Willness says of improving fertilizer efficiency. “If regulations are put in place or incentives come, these people will be prepared.”
In addition to tech-savvy farmers, Saskatchewan has a supportive start-up ecosystem, O’Connor says, with the presence of major industry players, such as Brandt, AGT Foods, Protein Industries Canada and provincial agencies. economic and technological development organizations – such as Innovation Saskatchewan – that have prioritized agricultural technology.
I often hear, “You’ll never get into the farmers – they just do the same thing their grandfather did. But I just didn’t see that at all.– Jason McNamee, Lucent Biosciences
Jason McNamee felt the embrace of this ecosystem when he and his Vancouver-based team at Lucent Biosciences pitched their idea for Soileos at a 2019 Saskatchewan tech startup competition. of plants that heralds benefits such as improved yields, costs and environmental sustainability. .
Although they didn’t win the contest, they caught the eye of the CEO of AGT Foods.
« Murad Al-Katib came up to me just after the pitch and said, ‘Are you saying what I think you’re saying?’ And he gave me his card, » McNamee recalled.
A few months later, AGT and Lucent teamed up with a consortium of other companies to secure a $19 million grant from Protein Industries Canada.
Lucent is currently completing development of its new production facility in Rosetown, Saskatchewan, which will employ approximately 20 people and have the capacity to manufacture approximately 7,000 tonnes of product per year – to begin with. They expect Soileos to be available to Saskatchewan farmers by next spring.
“The agricultural technology community in Saskatchewan is extremely strong,” says McNamee. « I often hear, ‘You’ll never get into farmers – they just do the same thing their grandfather did.’ But I just didn’t see that at all. »
Overcome the obstacles
There is still a long way to go for Saskatchewan’s tech industry to really take off, and major challenges lie ahead.
First, additional investment is needed, says O’Connor, as evidenced by the fact that $182 million of venture capital was deployed in Canadian agtech last year, compared to $4.9 billion in the United States. United.
One of the challenges in securing investment in this sector is that it is a less understood industry, says O’Connor, and that this technology takes longer to develop and adopt, which which means it takes longer for investors to see returns.
Finally, small businesses here struggle to hire local staff, especially in software development, Willness says.
« That’s probably one of the biggest challenges: trying to compete with everyone else for tech talent. It’s such a hot industry. »
Still, the fact that Saskatchewan is already experiencing this level of agricultural technology development and investment is good news for Western Canada, says O’Connor.
« For once, it doesn’t belong in the big centres. Instead of fighting for crumbs, we can have our own slice of bread. »