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To meet the increased demand for food and ensure food security, farmers must do more with less. Here’s how digital tools help.

GPS, field data maps, crop performance reports — these are just a few examples of the digital tools that Josh Butler uses on his Croton, Ont. farm, where he grows cash crops and raises livestock.

Butler is one of many Canadian farmers leveraging technological innovations, including digital agriculture, to generate data and improve their operations. “Farmers are really at the heart of the digital and precision agriculture transformation and the insights from these tools are being used to help them work more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably,” says Matt Eves, Customer Experience Lead — FieldView Canada at Bayer Crop Science, a developer of the digital farming software platform used by Butler.

The majority of Canadian farms are still family-run, and the big focus is on being environmentally as well as economically sustainable by getting the most out of their land.

Digital farming needed to get the most productivity and yield

Several factors are driving this trend to innovate, including labour shortages, changing farm demographics, and increased risks such as variable crop prices, weather, and ever-changing government and trade regulations. On top of that, to satisfy the food demands of a growing population, farmers need to grow more food on less arable or farmable land — and that requires the high level of precision that digital agriculture offers. “Digital farming is helping farmers get the most food, fuel, and fibre from every acre they farm while optimizing the use of natural resources,” says Eves.

Like computers, data management tools have evolved significantly over the last few decades. What started in the late eighties and early nineties with farmers collecting data from farm equipment using a data card, transferring it onto a desktop computer, and manually analyzing it is now done wirelessly off farm equipment via a cellular signal and transferred to a cloud platform. “This enables the farmer to see what’s happening in the field in real time from their desktop or mobile device, identify opportunities or issues and make necessary adjustments immediately, versus after it’s too late,” says Eves.

Canadian farmers are rapid adopters of digital agriculture

According to the recent Perceptions of Canadian Agriculture Report by Angus Reid commissioned by the Climate Corporation, only 12 percent of Canadians see agriculture as more innovative or technologically advanced than other industries. This does not reflect reality. “As the technology has evolved and become easier to use, the adoption of data-driven technology has increased and become mainstream among farmers,” says Eves. In fact, a Statistics Canada report released in June 2021 notes that Canadian farmers in most sectors are strong supporters of data-driven technology and have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to investing in it. For Butler, digital has been integral to his farming operation since 2009. “That was when we took that step to full digital technology ­— so everything from planning to planting to monitoring,” he says.

Another common misconception is that typical Canadian farms are factory types of establishments. “The majority of Canadian farms are still family-run, and the big focus is on being environmentally as well as economically sustainable by getting the most out of their land,” says Eves. Ironically, for Butler, who sells in the direct-to-consumer market, digital data helps him clarify this misperception to customers by enabling him to show them exactly where their food comes from.

The increased focus on climate change, along with the recent pandemic, has highlighted the importance of food security. But with under two percent of Canada’s population involved in farming operations, ensuring that food security to an ever-growing population will require better decision-making and risk mitigation tools that are data-driven which digital agriculture can provide. “From an innovation perspective, digital agriculture is really enabling people to do a better job,” says Eves.

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