By Dian Cohen
When Bill Gates was 20 years old he knew the right thing to do was to drop out of school and concentrate on building a computer and its operating system. He’s been right about a lot of things in the 45 years since then: a Microsoft product is in more than a billion communication devices worldwide and Bill Gates is the fourth richest person in the world. But he was wrong when he said, “I know there’s a farmer out there somewhere who never wants a PC and that’s fine with me.” Or let me put in another way: farming, circa early 21st century, cannot be done sustainably or profitably without some sort of computer.
That’s the conclusion of a myriad of studies of the future of farming – from the World Economic Forum to the Action Canada Fellowship to the Royal Bank study called Farmer 4.0 — all of them suggest that with the correct mix of skills, agriculture could add another $11 billion to Canada’s GDP and make the sector more productive than auto manufacturing and aerospace combined.
Quebec is working on strategies to make it happen – some of them are forward-looking, others sadly not.
Within the next five years, one in four Canadian farmers will be 65 or older with more than 100,000 expected to retire in the coming decade. Meanwhile, fewer young people than ever are entering agriculture. These stats in themselves are not worrying – the number of farms and farmer jobs has been declining for years even as production yields have risen. More worrying is the lack of urgency with which tech-savvy-ness is being promoted.
Farmers on tractors are still iconic images of “country”, but it’s fast becoming a thing of the past — many farmers are already spending more time in front of screens. Autonomous tractors will soon pull or push machinery for ploughing, tilling, disking, harrowing or planting. All these devices and new technologies require farmer management. Identifying the right product fit as a buyer, knowing how to operate new devices, and understanding the return on investment (ROI) that technology brings as part of their existing infrastructure is crucial.
More and more tasks which used to be done manually are being automated. Weeding robotics can be incredibly accurate and reduce pesticide usage by 90 per cent with computer vision. Drones can help food growers monitor conditions remotely, and even apply fertilizers and other treatments from above. All these require a rethink of the relationship between humans and robots.
In the period before tech platforms are completely intuitive and robots fully autonomous, the skills young farmers will need are platform orchestration and data management. Selecting, aligning and managing all the tools and platforms to increase productivity is still a complex task which requires significant input from tech creators, vendors and farmers themselves. Digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, blockchain and the internet of things (IoT) are crucial to entrepreneurs working in farming, especially considering the apparently irreversible trend of fewer and fewer people engaged in farming.
Much of this cannot happen until rural areas are equipped with a high-speed broadband network. Quebec has promised this will be reality in September 2022.
More than a decade ago, Quebec mandated the Commission sur l’avenir de l’agriculture du Québec (the Commission for the Future of Agriculture in Quebec) to assess the challenges of agriculture, analyse existing public interventions, and make recommendations based on the needs for agricultural competitiveness and social needs. The top three recommendations – get rid of the UPA monopoly, get rid of the monopoly-power of marketing boards and get rid of grants that guarantee the prices of certain farm products – have never been implemented, a nod to the power of the farm lobby, which even the government’s own commission recognized cost Quebec consumers hundreds of dollars a year. On the other hand, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said that Quebec’s National Rural Policy (NRP) was “one of the most advanced policy approaches to promoting rural development in the OECD area.” An important part of the NRP is its labelling schemes, designed to highlight the various “terroirs” (regions) and their respective products (e.g. Charlevoix lamb, Montérégie and Canton de l’est wine).
Quebec’s ag industry is a leader in organic production methods and support, has agri-environmental policies with a long-term focus tied to society’s concerns and farmers’ revenues, and had animal traceability and mental health awareness programs years before other provinces. Quebec’s Centre for Agriculture and Agri-foods (CRAAQ) provides a continuum of services where support, knowledge and network access is shared by 5,000 professionals and 15,000 ag and food companies – it includes a land bank program to match new farmers to land and help transfer existing farm business to new operators. All involved agree that the cost of this regulatory framework is a prohibitive amount of paperwork.
Disparate policies seek to balance our ability to feed ourselves with nutritious, environmentally sound and relatively cheap food and our ability to be an export powerhouse. We are transforming the way we produce
and market food, but we need to do it faster.
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Health Centre.