Big change is coming. In the words of Shrek, “Change is good, Donkey!” It’s also inevitable, which farmers probably know more than anyone else.
There are, of course, differing opinions about what farming will look like 10 years from now. Will farms be larger? Probably. Will weather be more unpredictable? Almost certainly. Will technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence and sensors make our farming easier and more efficient? That’s already happening.
In fact, many of the major trends these experts foresee are already underway and will continue to play out in the agricultural sector over the next decade and beyond.
We’ve spoken to leaders in areas including demographics, rural development, data management, climate, technology, agronomy, soil science, human resources and marketing, and it’s clear to them all that big changes are coming in agriculture, and they are going to make farming a different game very, very soon.
Country Guide will explore some of these changes and trends in greater depth in a series of upcoming articles about farming in 2030, but here’s a small taster of what you might see.
Climate, genetics and regenerative agriculture
Climate deniers will soon go the way of the dinosaurs as there’s global consensus that climate change is happening and it’s going to continue to have consequences such as more erratic and severe weather, changes to agricultural growing areas and expanded areas of adoption for some warmer-climate crops like corn and soybeans. Many feel that’s good news for Canada, which should be able to take advantage of warmer growing seasons if soils can be kept productive and crops developed through genetic advancements to overcome temporary, localized conditions and keep ahead of evolving resistant weeds, pests and diseases.
Soil scientists and many early-adopter farmers are also backing the growth of regenerative agriculture with its focuses on improving soil health through plant diversity using different cropping and livestock integration systems, and with its strategy of building up microbial populations to confer more resilience to the overall farm and make it more productive and sustainable. Regenerative, they say, is the only way forward for farming in the future, and will have benefits not just at the farm level but also environmentally and socially.
Scientists feel emerging genetic technologies have the potential to rapidly advance plant breeding and to produce crop varieties that are more resistant to climate and pest issues.
Until now, as well, farms have focused on expansion through getting more land, but in the future the focus will shift to producing more on the same or fewer acres, and again, regenerative agriculture, technology and innovation will have big roles to play.
Consumers, traceability and food security
The foundation of the ag pyramid will always be the consumer, and trends toward more plant-based diets and toward foods that are more nutritionally dense and flavourful will strengthen over the next decade. Consumers will also insist on knowing how their food is raised or grown. Traceability processes that focus on food production from farm to plate are already well established, and that’s only going to become more feasible and transparent as digitization and integration of primary agriculture and the rest of the value chain continues.
Food may soon carry a climate-friendly label and the global food industry will also be more concerned about food security than in the past.
Will there be more mouths to feed? It’s uncertain. Many believe we will see a rapidly burgeoning world population in 10 years and that agriculture will need to find ways to feed them, although others suggest fertility rates in many developed countries are already in decline (in some cases lower than replacement rate) and that the developing world is beginning to turn that corner too.
Robots and digitization
Technology is the fun area to speculate on as we see the current advances in things such as robotics (autonomous tractors and driverless cars), artificial intelligence (equipment that will make decisions in the field), and digitization of data.
Although technology seems limitless in its possibilities, the biggest hurdle is the issue of managing and connecting all the data so that it will empower farmers and the agricultural industry to make informed decisions, seamlessly and across multiple management platforms and equipment types.
When we crack that nut and begin to de-centralize data, the rewards in terms of efficiency, productivity and profitability will be huge.
There are a few provisos in this future view of inter-connectivity and collaborative technologies, though, and the biggest one is that we still have a long way to go before rural Canada has good internet and wireless connectivity that can make all these advances seamless.
Markets and rural youth
Markets will be more transparent in the future thanks largely to the connectivity that is bound to provide better access to information about the state of crop production worldwide and how that reflects at the market and farm level in real time. Farmers already consult their phones to see a visualization of the markets at that exact moment and compare them against historical averages and trends. The future will be the same, only a million times more powerful.
It’s also heartening to learn, through speaking with rural development people, that the rural population isn’t in decline as many people believe — in fact, it’s growing, just at a slower rate than urban populations. That’s not to say that there aren’t pockets of rural Canada that are struggling, but others (Morden and Winkler in south-central Manitoba, for example) are among the fastest-growing communities in the country.
What will prove vital is to make opportunities for young people to stay and work in rural areas, and to encourage them to pursue careers in agriculture, whether it’s on or off the farm. Again, a lot of great work is already being done in this area, but some experts feel the message needs to reach kids earlier about the agricultural possibilities available to them, especially as technology advances and the industry will be crying out for data management, communication and IT specialists who can basically work remotely from anywhere.
Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: agriculture is an industry bursting with innovation and smart people and it’s going to adapt and help find solutions to economic, environmental, social and humanitarian dilemmas that face the world, as it always has.
Envisioning a day on the farm in 2030
Hank is pouring a second cup of coffee when the in-crop sensors in field 14 send a message via his phone to say the crop is 98 per cent evenly mature and that moisture conditions are now perfect to begin combining. Soil monitors say “go” too, and so do Hank’s weather trackers.
Hank double-checks his equipment availability via his shop monitor, makes a couple of last decisions on segregating the crop by grade, and pushes out a command that sends the driverless combine trundling out to the field, with the automated grain cart following behind.
Hank turns his attention back to the real-time marketing data and sees his closest elevator is tracking the early frost that hit parts of Ukraine last night because it hit a little harder than expected. With the wet fall they’d had up to now, that means some of their customers are going to be looking at alternative supply sources this morning, so the basis signals here are solid; it’s time to get the crop out of the field.
Next, Hank pulls up the farm map that confirms the location of his trucks and employees. He texts Geoff to meet the grain truck at yard two, and once the computerized augers have finished loading the grain, drive the truck to the elevator that will already have received the shipping information and manifest. Although the province still requires actual people to drive vehicles on major highways, Hank wonders how long it will be before that will change, given the incredible safety record of the driverless vehicles and the plunge in insurance premiums it’s triggered.
Hank is so lost in thought, the electronic alarm startles him, but thankfully it’s just the tank sensor on the seeder. He almost forgot it’s been out seeding the cover crop for a couple of hours already and is down to 14 per cent in the tank, but almost simultaneously he’s texted by the seed supplier who has just received the same alert and more seed will arrive this morning at 10 a.m.
“Got it Dad,” comes another text from Ronnie. “I’ll meet the seed guy at storage shed two at 10.”
The combine has been straight cutting the canola/pea intercrop for a while now and Hank smiles at the yield and moisture data for each crop, which are being separated in the field into the divided tanks in the grain cart. The data feeds into his farm management app and the return over cost of production figures are quickly generated. It’s going to be a good season.
Hank would like to do some spraying later this afternoon but he needs to get the second tractor up and running. “Can the dealer fix it remotely?” his wife Sarah asks. “We don’t have to wait for them on site, do we?”
“It’s okay,” Hank says. “They have to come out, but the part is coming out of the 3D printer as we speak. I’ll drop the kids off… we’ll still be fine.”
It’s just as well, Hank says to himself. “The equipment leaves the farm so rarely these days, it’s nice to have a reason for a trained mechanic to actually put human eyes on it.”
“I’m getting another cup. Want one?” Sarah asks.
As she refills their mugs, Hank muses how he doesn’t sweat as much over the weather as he used to, despite the fact that the climate has definitely changed and local weather conditions are more unpredictable than ever.
But since he adopted regenerative ag he’s not as worried about whether it’s a short or long season, excessively dry or wet, or even about weeds, pests and diseases. His soil is healthier because he’s embraced diversity and built up a strong microbial community that does wonderful things. His whole system works together to make the farm so much more resilient and profitable. He was so skeptical about it at first, but he has to admit, regenerative is the way to go if you want to be in farming for the long term.
Besides, the coffee’s hot and tastes good!