Future farms

Canadian Geographic - - PLACE - By Nick Walker these this this this this

“FARM­ERS PLAY the equiv­a­lent of high­stakes poker al­most ev­ery day,” says Wade Barnes, pres­i­dent and CEO of Win­nipeg-based Farm­ers Edge. “Should I plant now or later? Should I spray or shouldn’t I?” And as Prairie grow­ing sea­sons get longer and warmer (re­search con­sen­sus is an av­er­age in­crease of around 3 C by 2050) and weather even less pre­dictable, farm­ers have to make due with hands full of wild cards. Many Prairie grow­ers are switch­ing from canola and wheat (suited to his­tor­i­cally cooler grow­ing ar­eas such as Man­i­toba) to the less fa­mil­iar crops of soy­beans or corn, typ­i­cal of warmer parts of the United States but re­cently a vi­able op­tion for the south­ern Prairies. And an in­creas­ing num­ber are turn­ing to big data to help them make sounder de­ci­sions — to help tilt the odds in their favour. En­ter Barnes’s com­pany. Founded with fel­low agron­o­mist Cur­tis Mack­in­non in 2005, it em­bod­ies “pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture” in its finest and most in­te­grated form. Agronomists and tech­ni­cians from Farm­ers Edge es­sen­tially dig­i­tize en­tire farms by amass­ing data from a com­bi­na­tion of on-the-ground soil tests, in­stalled weather sta­tions and satel­lite im­ages, and use the data to cre­ate colour­ful, de­tailed “pre­scrip­tion maps” of in­di­vid­ual fields. This helps grow­ers squeeze more out of ev­ery square me­tre of farm­land by tar­get­ing spe­cific chunks of earth as needed (what’s known as vari­able-rate ap­pli­ca­tion), in turn cut­ting back on wa­ter, pes­ti­cides, fer­til­izer and fuel. But it’s not just about where to con­cen­trate or con­serve seeds and re­sources. “The data we man­age drives ev­ery­thing,” says Barnes. “We can tell a farmer that based on the weather since he planted, he shouldn’t be spray­ing un­til day; or that is how much wa­ter part of his field can hold; or that based on cli­matic con­di­tions, he should watch out for type of pest in fields.” With all the data in play, says Barnes, they’re see­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity in­creases of up to 30 per cent, and they’re do­ing it for less than $4 an acre — about a sixth of what it cost five years ago. Farm­ers Edge is fo­cused on the iconic Prairie crops, such as wheat and canola, as well as corn and soy­beans, but af­ter just 10 years in busi­ness, their meth­ods are in de­mand around the globe. They’ve set up of­fices and are work­ing with farm­ers in the U.S., Brazil and, most re­cently, Rus­sia and Aus­tralia. “We’d touched al­most 25,000 acres by 2006,” says Barnes, “and by the end of this year, we ex­pect to be on about seven mil­lion acres glob­ally.” High stakes, in­deed.

A Man­i­toba-born “pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture” com­pany is us­ing big data on soil, cli­mate and more to give Prairie crops a big boost

Farm­ers Edge pre­scrip­tion maps: vari­abler­ate fer­til­izer ap­pli­ca­tion shown on a field in Man­i­toba ( above) and crop health ( top).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.