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The skills you’ll need as farms become more digital

Technology is transforming agriculture at a speed we hardly grasp. Will yours be among the farms that emerge stronger?

In October, Country Guide covered the report “Farmer 4.0: How the Coming Skills Revolution Can Transform Agriculture” published by RBC, with its emphasis on how the era of super-automation will change how we farm.

“As Canadian farmers leave traditional tasks to smart machines, and focus on strategy and systems, they’ll be better positioned than ever to feed a fast-growing global population,” said RBC senior vice-president John Stackhouse. “But to do that, they’ll need a wide range of new skills, as well as enhanced old skills, that Canada isn’t developing anywhere near fast enough.”

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This is not the first time in history that agriculture has experienced a critical shift. Think back millennia ago when humans transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. Thousands of years later the Industrial Revolution — trains, planes and automobiles (and tractors and farm machinery!) — paved the way for the third iteration, the Green Revolution, the decades from the 1950s and the 1970s, when research contributed to a huge increase in crop yields practically everywhere in the world.

Now we’re on the cusp of the fourth revolution, and again, technology will play a major role in how the industry transforms.

With each seismic shift, there were concerns about technology displacing workers, a process coined “creative destruction” by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942. He defined creative destruction as the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Sounds daunting! Is this what we’re facing?

Approximately 85 per cent of jobs that were around at the beginning of the 20th century (think lamplighters and switchboard operators), were made obsolete by technology by the beginning of the 21st century. The revolutionary way in which Henry Ford developed the assembly line is a prime example of technological progress increasing productivity at the expense of workers while benefiting society as a whole.

Considering that advances in technology have not only boosted Canada to a world leadership position in agriculture, but have saved our feet and backs as well, many farmers would place it at the top of the list of things they are most thankful for. But what does all this new technology (e.g. artificial intelligence [AI] and automation) mean for the future of agriculture? How will it have an impact on the industry as a whole? How will it affect us at the individual farm level? And how can current and future farmers prepare for Ag Revolution 4.0?

The role of soft skills

A great deal of research has been done over the last few years about the future of work and how it will affect numerous industries: what it might look like, who will be most affected, and how both today’s workers as well as the next generation can determine what skills will be required and how they can acquire them. Since there are specific human skills even the most advanced AI programs cannot duplicate, it’s these “soft skills” that will give humans an edge and help them weather the creative destruction process.

Hard skills are quantifiable, consisting of specific knowledge and abilities (e.g. mechanics, accounting). Soft skills help us relate to and navigate our environment (e.g. resilience, communication skills).

Soft skills might be harder to understand and implement, but they are critical to providing humans the advantage over robots. And while at first it might seem counterintuitive, advanced technology and people skills are not mutually exclusive.

Research proves it. The more digital your business becomes, the more important soft skills are to your success. “Human relationships will continue to play an important role in the workplace, no matter what technological advances may occur,” says Kelly Boutilier, an adult learning specialist in Quebec. As technology increasingly takes over more menial tasks, humans will need to attend to the higher-level tasks that machinery cannot replicate, requiring a suite of soft skills like people management, negotiation, cognitive flexibility, critical thinking, co-ordinating with others, complex problem-solving, judgment, decision-making, and creativity — most of which, in some capacity, are already part of a farm manager’s toolkit.

The role of creativity

Eliza Easton, head of the policy unit at Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre at Nesta, points out in her article “Want a robot-proof job of the future? Start getting creative” many of the fields likely to experience a dip in employment are low- or medium-skilled. By contrast, jobs in sectors like construction and agriculture are much less likely to suffer the drastic consequences previously predicted.

Easton’s research found “evidence of a group of softer, cognitive skills that are also likely to ‘robot-proof’ existing jobs: judgment and decision-making, fluency of ideas, complex problem-solving and systems analysis” — all of which are already key underpinnings of modern agriculture.

Due to the cognitively acrobatic nature of a farmer’s brain (no two days are ever the same and multiple job hats are worn in a day), they are already well-equipped with many of these creative soft skills that can prepare them for the future.

The skills you’ll need

So, what skills will you need when the robots start taking over many of the jobs you do today? To start with you’ll need:

  • Business skills development.
  • Leadership skills.
  • Tech awareness skills and digital literacy.
  • Critical thinking skills.
  • Communication skills including: people management (collaboration, teamwork), interpersonal and listening skills.
  • Complex problem-solving skills.
  • Creativity.

Based on the five categories of agriculture workers identified in the RBC report (Deciders, Enablers, Specialists, Doers, and Advisors), it’s the Deciders — the farm owners and operators — who will have the greatest need to develop the digital expertise and critical thinking skills to manage increasingly complex operations.

A sharpened set of soft skills will complement other, more traditional skills that the world of ag will depend on for a few years yet. As mentioned in the RBC report, “Advanced technologies may have the potential to cut operating costs in the long run, but they are expensive to acquire and implement.” That means bigger farms will start using new tech more quickly as will the incoming younger generation. However, everyone should be investing in soft skills development now since these skills will help you discover and seize opportunities for growth and future-proof your job.

“Many of the disruptive factors impacting the Canadian agriculture sector are beyond the control of producers, including adverse climate patterns, macro-economic trends and digital disruption,” says Ryan Riese, national director of agriculture at RBC. “What they can control is their preparedness and response to remain resilient in these times of change. And that can be in the form of critical investments in development opportunities to help build skills that are fit for future purpose; succession planning to ensure a seamless transition to the next generation of talent; and adopting new technologies to unlock greater productivity, innovation and scale to grow their farm operation.”

The process of creative destruction creates winners and losers. And rapid, incessant change can be disorienting. However, as pointed out in RBC’s report, “…even as automation replaces the hard, physical tasks that once defined farming, the human quotient in food production appears to be greater than ever.” In other words, even though technology is becoming more pervasive in our everyday lives, it will ultimately be the human skills that matter most.

And if Canada’s ag sector can unravel who needs what skills and how to ensure they get them, we stand to add another $11 billion to Canada’s GDP, according to the RBC report — making the sector “more productive than auto manufacturing and aerospace combined.”

As further proof that a strong set of soft skills will pay dividends well into the future, John Hagel, management consultant and author, said at the 2019 Brave New Work Conference, “(A)utomation and artificial intelligence cannot address unseen problems and opportunities in the workplace or create new ways of dealing with old problems.” And if the past and present of farming are any indication, there will never be a shortage of those!

This article was originally published as “Creative Destruction 4.0” in the December 2019 issue of Country Guide.

About the author


April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.

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