Farming and agriculture have long been one of the traditional backbones of Canada’s economy.
But in the 21st century, life in the fields is going from Old Macdonald to new media – and it’s changing the game.
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According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world will be home to about 9.6 billion people in 2050, and they are going to be hungry.
So how will we feed them?
In order to feed the world, food production must increase by 70 per cent by 2050, and this has to be achieved in spite of the limited availability of arable lands, the increasing need for fresh water, and other less predictable factors such as the impact of climate change.
Sean Smukler is an Assistant Professor and Junior Chair of Agriculture and Environment at UBC and has an eye on what challenges we’re expecting in the seasons to come.
“I think there is some rapid development in the agricultural sector. I think there is a widespread recognition that there is going to be a need for increasing production, but also efficiencies all across the food system,” he says.
Smukler says part of that development is changing some of farming’s fundamentals.
“Everyday we are rapidly evolving our farming techniques. In a number of different ways,” he says.
“From the types of crops we are growing, there’s been huge developments in the types of genes deployed in agriculture, to the technology that we’re using in terms of farm equipment, or remotely sensed data. There has been a big push to integrate big data into farming.”
That’s a big change, to a world where spreadsheets and databases have become as much farming tools as tractors and threshers.
“There’s a vast amount of agricultural land where farmers are tracking the amounts of inputs that they are putting in the land and the returns in terms of yields, in terms of economics. So there is a great potential to mine that data to get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t,” Smukler says.
Need more proof that big data is digging in to agribusiness? According to Forbes, several well-known investors recently dropped a combined $40-million into Farmers Business Network.
It’s a company that promises farmers that they can boost their profits by tapping into a system that stores and shares data from thousands of farmers and millions of acres across the U.S.
It pools and processes data such as seed and chemical prices, field sizes, and crop yields, to give participating farmers a holistic look at how their operations stack up against the rest of the pack.
The company is aiming for a Canadian launch soon.
As big data continues to infiltrate farming and agriculture, some analysts are worried that traditional farmers won’t be able to keep up.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of farms with younger operators is shrinking.
Between 1991 and 2011, the number of farms where the oldest operator was younger than 40-years-old declined by nearly three quarters from 74,159 to 20,299.
However, Smukler thinks there is hope for the future.
“The type of person going into farming is changing rapidly, and I think the idea of farming may soon capture the younger generation,” he says.
“It is a very complex job. It’s a job that requires knowledge of technology, of business management, of people management and now knowledge of environmental regulations. So, what may have seemed like a very simplistic job to one generation now is a sector that requires a fair amount of training and skills.”
But Smukler says there’s still a missing ingredient, creating a return on investment for people who develop those skills with higher salaries for people involved in the industry.
Meanwhile, he says the latest generation of agriculture students are learning the new skills that will be crucial to the farms of tomorrow.
As for who’s signing up – does Smukler find a life in the fields attracts a certain kind of person?
“It’s an interesting question because I have definitely seen a transition from the type of person who wants to go into agriculture shift from the rural type person, who is going to take over the farm from their parents, to a new type of entrepreneur who is interested in developing some of these high tech and precision applications in agriculture,” he says.
“This is a totally different type of person that we have seen involved in agriculture in the past.”