“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).