The farm of the future is staffed by robots, RBC report says

Click to play video: 'Southern Alberta agriculture event showcases the latest in farming technology'
Southern Alberta agriculture event showcases the latest in farming technology
WATCH: Southern Alberta farmers held an event Saturday to inform the general public just far how technology in the industry has come – Aug 18, 2019

When you step onto a Canadian farm in the year 2030, you likely won’t see stacks of hay or a farmer riding a tractor. Rather, you’ll probably be handed a tablet to help you navigate the property, and the tractor may be driving itself.

A recently released RBC report predicts that in a decade’s time, farms will be operated largely by autonomous machines and digital logistics systems. Therefore, they’ll be staffed by high-skilled engineers, scientists, communications professionals and other digitally savvy employees.

Aaron Breimer, general manager of the Ontario-based agriculture consulting firm Veritas Farm Management, works with farmers across the country to help them maximize their production. While he comes from a traditional farming background, having completed a degree in agronomy at the University of Guelph, half of his team members have backgrounds in data analytics and computer science.

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“Half of my team does not have what I call a traditional ‘ag’ background, but they are data scientists and computer programmers. They’re experts that can look at the data with a skill set that even I don’t have and be able to dig through that data for farmers,” Breimer said.

Who is the farmer of the future, and what does this mean for the labour market?

According to RBC, the shortage of workers in the Canadian agriculture sector is expected to grow by 123,000 by the year 2030, and the skills required to own and operate a modern farm are changing every day.

“You have an industry that is evolving, and there is a little bit of a revolution happening because of the deeper and deeper integration of IT into agriculture and agri-food equipment,” explained Helen Hambly Odame, an agricultural researcher with the University of Guelph.

The report outlines automation and data analytics as “game-changer” technologies in the agriculture space.

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Click to play video: '“Urban farming supports the fight against climate change”: Etobicoke backyard farm joins growing trend in GTA'
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Automation is currently being implemented on Canadian farms and in “agri-tech” companies everywhere — from picking produce and tilling fields to milking cows — while analytics-driven platforms known as “precision agriculture” are being used to track crop growth by the square foot and maximize farm output.

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The RBC report describes the farmer of the future as skilled in communications, data analytics, computer science and management. Across the country, as farming operations become more complex, there is a growing need for agriculture managers with skills in human resources, integrated systems management, finance and engineering.

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“We need individuals who can service the equipment — more and more digitally savvy equipment — we need people who know the wholesale retail side of the value chain, we need people who can broker innovation and go along with packages of very detailed information,” Hambly Odame explained.

As these changes continue, she adds, universities and even high school guidance counsellors will need to change their perceptions of the agriculture industry in order to recommend the right people to these positions.

“You know there’s a fewer number of people living on a farm so not that many farm kids coming up through the pipeline… And so these young people who are in high school and are making decisions about their career, that’s when you need to engage with them,” she said.

Andrew Schrumm, senior manager of research at RBC, also notes that the emerging roles will likely be broken down into the farm owners, IT staff and scientists, financial or growth advisers and the roles that remain for physical labour.

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“Traditionally, we think of that kind of red-barn farmer with the overalls and the pitchfork. The reality is the industry is made up of a number of different skill sets,” he explained.

Furthermore, the labour demographics on Canadian farms could change significantly. It’s likely, for example, that much of the human labour still required on farm properties could be taken over by foreign workers and Indigenous people in Canada looking for employment, Schrumm added.

WATCH: Technology and its future in farming

Click to play video: 'Technology and its future in farming'
Technology and its future in farming

As generational farm ownership becomes less common, Scrhumm also notes that the sector could also see an influx of young workers.

“The trend in agriculture has been a farm operation being passed down from one generation to the next,” he said. “It’s not realistic to think that that intergenerational transfer will continue. We need new people in industry. We need fresh skill sets, and educators play a key role in developing these future-focused skill sets.”

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What could this mean for the Canadian economy?

Since 2011, Canada has consistently ranked as the world’s fifth-largest exporter of agricultural products, but we’ve only invested a fraction of money compared to other countries in food production research and development. While Canadian farmers rely heavily on government funding to access new technologies, global investment in the “ag-tech” sector hit a record US$16.9 billion last year.

At the beginning of this year, the Canadian government highlighted international trade as a priority for the agriculture industry given the influx of new technology in the sector and the increase in output potential.

According to the report, Canada could potentially grow its agricultural output by C$11 billion by 2030 by focusing on filling the empty 123,000 jobs and addressing the skills shortages currently threatening the sector. Breimer also predicts that if a majority of Canadian farmers embraced new technologies, production could be increased by between 12 and 15 per cent.

Schrumm, however, thinks that by working with Canadian educational institutions to attract potential talent, farming output could reach $51 billion in GDP growth in 10 years.

“Agriculture is [on the] leading edge of all industries [when it comes to] adapting to the next generation. What we see more generally in the labour force over the course of technology adoption is more jobs, not less,” he said.

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