Putting Technologies to the Test
Agriculture is a global business, and no sector is excluded from the rush of new technologies, techniques and supplies. As competitors on the global stage, Canadian farmers need to make sure they are at the forefront of the latest advancements.
Whether you are a small certified organic grower or a large operation growing conventional product, you can no longer avoid the global scrutiny of your practices. There are companies with thousands of acres of organic food that can sustainably and reliably supply the local supermarkets—so yes, you need to care!
Each and every area of industry is being improved upon and developed at a dizzying pace: irrigation, machinery, agro-chemicals of all sorts, seed sources, greenhouse coverings, renewable energy solutions, solar panels, composters, software, apps, aquaponics, multi-cropping systems, medicinal-quality crop production, water harvesting systems, local farm weather networks, new crops and animals, green fertilizers, reusable and recyclable plastics, multi-layered growing, soil-less growing, algae culture and green walls—to name just a few. How does anyone keep up with all the new-fangled technologies? All you need to do is attend a trade show or receive visitors to the farm who are selling these novelties to see the vast possibilities. But are they all as marvelous as they are claimed to be?
About once a week, I receive yet another request from someone wanting me to prove the concept of whatever machine or product they are flogging. I see it as my duty to separate the good from the bad, but it is not easy. The promised effects are usually somewhat out of this world; but then again, that is exactly what we are all hoping for.
Soil amendments and fertilizers usually lead the charge in number of hits. I receive free product if I do a small trial and present the results. After a meeting with the proponents, a trial gets set up—if the product shows any promise at all. At this point, I have already discarded the idea of testing about three quarters of the products brought to my attention. The ones that are discarded right away are usually the ones that promise 300 per cent yield improvements. A quick, preliminary, low-cost trial shows whether the product is useful and I may recommend grower-based trials, or I tell the proponents that it’s just not worth it. In the latter case I usually get told that I don’t know what I’m talking about because their product is so wonderful and I am passing up a great opportunity. If you’ve ever watched Dragon’s Den, you know what I mean. Only in the next stage of testing (in growers’ fields/facilities) can I comfortably make any kind of recommendations. That something works in a lab or in a controlled experiment is one thing; that it works under the unpredictable conditions on a real farm is an entirely different ball game. I believe every grower follows the same kind of strategy of separating the good from the bad.
I take many risks and so do the growers; but, for all of us, the risks need to be relatively minor. Some people will plant 40 acres of a new variety, although I’ve asked them to try just one acre. I am less risk-tolerant than the 40 acre grower for sure; however, I weigh the risk against the gains. For example, if I can be the first one with the latest technology in greenhouse lighting, the latest variety of blueberries, or a soil amendment that keeps root rot at bay, imagine the benefits!
Recently, I had to make about 200 decisions regarding technology in our new agriculture research and demonstration facilities. I was worried for about six months until we had pulled together a final product that was incorporating all sorts of novel items with proven technology.
The competition for my attention from those wanting to sell me new items was incredible. I have to thank them all for making me uncomfortably aware just how little I know. The products were from Israel, Germany, France, Britain, China, India, Holland and a few dozen other countries, making up about half of our materials. The rest were from Canada and even local suppliers. I had to have many of the materials explained to me, as I was completely ignorant that they even existed. For example, a ninety-five per cent light-diffusing polycarbonate; energy-efficient fans with owl wing design that don’t rattle; a water recapturing system that fulfills watering needs for the year; a multi-tiered carousel growing system, multiplying the output from the growing area tenfold; irrigation emitters and distribution systems that clean themselves and supply equal amounts to every plant; a sophisticated environmental control system in a closed greenhouse; a composter for all the campus organic waste that delivers beautiful substrate for growing plants; research-type feeding and watering systems for chickens. Yes, all that and so much more.
We’d love to show you what we find, and most of our research is on farming operations. We are at the annual grower conventions in Canada and the US, and we publish in magazines such as Modern Agriculture and in industry newsletters. We participate in field days and demonstration trial tours, and we establish working relationships with the growers who are usually first to try out something new. With the help of funding from innovation and technology transfer funds, the risk to growers is minimized and growers see the results firsthand. Those early adopters then tell everyone else, and thus the industry keeps changing and adapting to meet the challenges we face.
Lastly, I can’t stress enough the importance of global travel to seek out the new inventions. Whether you do that in person or on the Internet, you will learn about new exciting developments in your sector. As I am writing this, I am dreaming about having my own GPS-guided drone that cruises over the fields, taking all the pictures for me, so I don’t have to slog through mud and rain anymore. I’ve been thinking about this ever since my friend, Ian Sparkes, had me sit in a GPS-guided tractor cab and watched my puzzled face when he let go of the steering wheel. More and more, precision agriculture will drive me to have the most accurate measurements and the most relevant pictures for the work that I do for the industry. I am constantly adapting and moving forward—and, so should you!