The Future of Farming

What can you do today for a better tomorrow?

By Colleen Halpenny

When looking to the future of your business, there can be an overwhelming number of variables to consider.

Current developments in technology, machinery, genetics, and sustainability prove that when it comes to innovation, agriculture is at the forefront in moving the needle.

Better Farming recently asked industry experts what areas deserve additional strategy today, to set up your business for a successful future.

A changing industry

“There has become a great awareness of the length of time it takes to have a successful succession. Having conversations earlier, having an idea of where everyone is currently, and where they want to go is critical. Starting these open conversations, with ongoing intentional follow-up discussions is really powerful,” says Patti Durand, business advisor with Farm Credit Canada.

Durand says that the best future-focused business strategy is to keep all team members on the same page.

“Instead of thinking of transition as a date on the calendar, view it instead as something that collectively everyone is working towards shifting into. If it’s viewed as a harmonious growth opportunity, it’s so much more successful.

farmer couple looking over their crop field
    scharfsinn86 - Adobe Stock photo

“Allowing the next generation to spend time in various aspects of the business over time builds a level of comfort and confidence,” she says.

While younger farmers are entering the industry, there are other demographic shifts also occurring.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) AgriDiversity Program was launched to help under-represented groups – including youth, women, Indigenous Peoples, and persons with disabilities – to fully participate in agriculture by addressing key issues and barriers.

The program intends to strengthen the sector and build its capacity by helping diverse groups to better develop their skills to take on a greater leadership role.

The face of agriculture is changing, slowly but surely. Insightful farmers already see the opportunities available through this evolution.

Stanford Blade, professor and dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, knows the importance of educating the public that the days of the stereotypical red barn and split-rail fences are largely gone.

“Operations of any sector today are a multimillion-dollar business. And they are being run in a way that will offer them continued abilities to invest and improve,” he says.

students sitting at desks in lecture
    Urban-originating ag students have been made aware of career opportunities in the industry. - Monkey Business - Adobe Stock photo

When reflecting on the student population from 20 years ago, Blade refers to the drastic change in urban-originating ag students. He says that while they may be two or three generations removed from close agriculture connection, they have been made aware of the career opportunities and that these programs align with their values.

“The next generation sees the historical importance of the research work done and knows that our tradition of innovation will broaden their opportunities,” he says.

For Sébastien Pouliot, principal agricultural economist with FCC, his vision for the future includes increased sophistication and specialization.

“The technology involved in production, increased automation systems, and superior genetics are going to drive the changes we can see across the sector.

“This means that those at the management and operation level will need to have higher understanding and education to deal with these levels of technology,” he says.

Specializing in returns

Pouliot says that enhanced education and specialization will be achieved through delegation and teamwork.

He believes farmers must acknowledge that a one-person operation will not allow them to reach their full potential in future years.

“Bringing in employees, specialists, and advisors will be critical. Allowing them to focus on a single area of production, and bring their skill sets to deliver high returns will become the way in which farm managers can best manage their success,” he says.

Economies of scale will be increasingly important. For Pouliot, “these practices show us that the larger your business, the smaller your average cost is. And these operations are quick to adapt to new practices which continue this trend.”

Matt Bowman, chair of the Beef Cattle Research Council and producer in Thornloe, Ont., refers to the importance of the research being done across sectors on carbon sequestering and soil health.

While not a new area of focus, Bowman and his team are working on quantifying a value of the total units of carbon being sequestered by different forages and pasture systems currently in use.

“We are working with producers to implement best practices and understand that sustainability is not only an environmental issue, but also an economical one. If we can assist the government to come up with a deliverable way to measure carbon being placed back into the soil, and have producers be compensated for these practices, collectively we will all experience the benefits,” he says.

AAFC notes that across Canada, agricultural soils have shifted from being a net source of 1.2 Mt of CO2 per year in 1981 to a net sink of 4.2 Mt of CO2 per year in 2019.

Bowman says the council is still focusing on product safety, delivering a wholesome healthy product to the consumer. He notes that there have been additional markets open since the start of the pandemic, and producers have been quick to capitalize on the demand for local products.

And again, it all comes back to farm technology.

“Drones have also become something that are on the rise, as producers are working to find ways to round up cattle in those harder-to-navigate terrains and wide-open spaces,” reports Bowman.

“We’ve also heard great feedback from those who have taken advantage of remote fencing with satellites and cow collars. It allows for producers to graze where previously fencing wasn’t sustainable.”

Increased focus on genetics and feed efficiency, while increasing the use of by-products in rations, not only benefits the producer, but also reduces human food waste. The cattle can positively utilize these leftovers and keep food from ending up in landfills, explains Bowman.

Future innovation won’t be restricted to livestock operations.

Bob Holm, Canadian supplier of the Sky Greens vertical farming system, reflects on his experience with this innovative technology.

Looking to reduce feed costs for his bison, the St. Albert, Alta. producer had begun growing fodder in his empty horse arena until one day he realized the ground was covered, while the two stories above were empty.

“If I’m already heating this space, why am I not taking advantage of all of it? When I stumbled on the Sky Greens system, I knew instantly this is the future of how we grow food. You are farming with the sun. In a traditional single-level growing system you get on average 4.3 plants per square meter; in this system you’re maxing this out to 219 plants per square meter,” he claims.

For greenhouse systems already in place, this adjustment to the infrastructure in Holm’s experience could increase production by 10 times.

Holm and his team pride themselves on the award-winning, low-carbon hydraulic vertical growing systems that produce fruits and vegetables for local and international markets year-round. “It’s our belief that food production and consumption shoul

d be fresh, lean, and clean, while zeroing down on energy and food wastage.

“It is only through research and innovation that countries can overcome the ever-demanding challenges of erratic climate conditions, limited arable land, water, and energy resources,” says Holm.

Leading for tomorrow

Farm Credit Canada’s Durand knows that no one cares about your business like you do. Strong communication lines and layering each generation’s growth and responsibility will be essential for success in the future.

Just as Pouliot recommends external assistance, Durand says that “in those areas where you don’t personally have the time, or the desire, to learn the trade or skill, using outside help is so beneficial. It’s a shift in mindset to go beyond lawyers and accountants. But capitalizing on those extra sets of eyes and experience allows for a younger generation to set themselves up for decision-making that is free of guesswork.”

For U of A’s Blade, crop genetic improvements have been increasingly important in a number of ways, including nitrogen use and water efficiency, allowing producers to bolster insurance against modest levels of precipitation and still harvest a reasonable amount of crop. He says that this benefit allows for focus in other areas.

“We are actively working to get more research into the area of linking artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Agricultural practices generate so much data with yield maps, weather conditions and fertilizer tracking, there is a huge amount of knowledge that we could be better utilizing.

“Even for producers who don’t feel as though they are technology savvy, their operations are so rich in data.

As we overcome rural internet connectivity issues, the intent with this data would be to extract the results and assist producers to best manage their additional resources and time,” he explains.

Pouliot stresses that farms, regardless of the ownership profile, are still businesses.

“The best way to keep a farm lasting for generations and continue to be profitable, is to manage it like a commercial business.

“Agriculture is a competitive environment. While farmers aren’t typical businessmen in business attire, the best ones think like they are.” BF

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