Drones, robots, cloud computing: Betting the future of farming on high tech

CALGARY -- The family farm is going high-tech.

From robotic milking machines to data-gathering drones, industry watchers say technology is making agriculture more precise and efficient as farmers push for increased profits and yields.

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"There's a whole confluence of technologies that are adding a lot of value on the farm quickly," said Aki Georgacacos, co-founder of Calgary-based Avrio Capital.

The venture capital firm focuses on agriculture and food innovations, and Georgacacos says changes like fine-detailed mapping and sensors for everything from soil moisture to fuel use are just beginning.

"We're not even scratching the surface," he said, adding an older generation of farmers have been slow to adopt new techniques.

But that's changing.

"Right now we're at a bit of an inflection point, where we've moved beyond early adopters and we're moving now into fast followers, and so we're getting to a point where the rate at which some of this technology is accepted is accelerating."

On Monday, Avrio Capital finished raising $110 million in late-stage venture capital that it plans to invest in the next wave of farm-tech companies.

One of them is Fredericton, N.B.-based Resson Aerospace, which has developed drone-based crop monitoring to know when fields need to be sprayed or watered.

Another is Winnipeg-based Farmers Edge, which 10 years ago was based out of Wade Barnes's basement in rural Manitoba, where he and co-founder Curtis MacKinnon were pushing to make local farms more efficient.

Barnes started introducing farmers to technology that allowed them to apply varying amounts of fertilizer on their fields depending on where it was most needed.

"That was quite revolutionary back in 2005," Barnes said in an interview.

Today, the company has evolved into what Barnes says is one of the biggest in the world working in farm data management, using cloud computing to crunch numbers from soil sensors, satellite imagery, weather stations and other inputs to make farms more efficient.

in January, Farmers Edge secured a $58 million investment from investors including Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co. and Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

"The next big revolution in agriculture is big data," said Barnes from southern Russia, where he was setting up another satellite office for the company now operating on four continents.

Already, he said, farmers are seeing 30 per cent increases in productivity by using the data available, and the technology is only getting more accessible. A system that five years ago would have cost $15 to $25 an acre now costs under $5, said Barnes.

Cheaper technology and advancements in productivity are more important than ever as pressure mounts on the world's food systems, says Viacheslav Adamchuk, an associate professor in McGill University's bioresource engineering department.

"We are not going to see more arable land; land is all allocated. The population is growing, the climate is changing," he said.

Adamchuk's research has focused on sensor technology in farming, which he says has come down dramatically in price in recent years while at the same time growing in precision.

He estimates that farmers can shave off at least 10 per cent -- and upwards of 40 per cent -- of their input costs on things like fertilizer, seeds and water thanks to global positioning systems and sensors that allow them to use those resources only where needed.

"You can maintain the same yield with less inputs," said Adamchuk.

Stan Blade, dean of the University of Alberta's faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, says innovation is key for the future of farming.

"The farmers who succeed are the ones who are going to incorporate new technologies," he said.

"Auto-steered tractors, yield monitors on combines -- I mean we're all using those things now because it just makes us that much more efficient. They decrease labour, they make things more efficient, they make things safer, so it just presents a whole array of new opportunities for producers that are involved in generating these yields."



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