The future of food production (and the equipment revolution behind it)

By Trent Meyer. 

We have all heard the shocking numbers that are being thrown around by demographers and those selling the ‘future of agriculture’ — the most common being the world needs to feed up to nine billion people by 2050 (give or take a billion or a decade).

For many in our industry, this goes well beyond the proverbial 30,000-foot view, into an area that seems too far away to concern ourselves with. We look at our operations and note that we just make (insert your product here), so we will continue to do so and hopefully keep or expand our share of the market.

The fact is we have always been in the game of feeding the world, so there is no reason we should hide from the lofty expectations of 30 years from now. Most of us have been around for 15-30 years already, many longer, and have watched the demand for commodities balloon right alongside production capacity. We’ve been up to the task thus far — the modern challenge, however, is simply being framed in a much different way.

As an agricultural implement manufacturer, the area most concerning for our industry is how we interact with the coming data revolution, if our products can realize a value benefit from the addition of data to aide in management and decision-making. While I believe most, if not all, of the ag equipment and products we manufacture in Western Canada could benefit from the use of data, I am not convinced the sector as a whole has committed sufficient thought or resources to where this might lead.

At SeedMaster, like others in the seeding space, we have been immersed in data for years. From the initial tractor guidance systems shepherding our equipment around the field to complex variable rate mapping and the overlay of yield maps from harvest, the potential in-and-out data integrations for our products are, and have been for some time, immense. This has helped prepare us to embrace the latest data wave more organically.

With data piling up, the potential for semi- and fully-autonomous operation of equipment has been increasing at an exponential rate. Enter Dot Technology Corp. and our Dot Autonomous Power Platform™, or simply DOT. The culmination of years of concept development and innovation, DOT brings together the advancements made in driverless technology, mostly from the automobile industry, with the farm data that has been building for years to control a unit that makes any Dot Ready™ Implement autonomous.

The advent of autonomous agriculture can be viewed through more than one lens. Some see it as a job-killing machine that will eventually render farmers and farm help redundant. On the other end of the spectrum, it can be seen as the mechanism by which to allow farmers and their hired help to focus on higher value functions while freeing them from the tractor cab. Most viewpoints are somewhere in between, where the short- to mid-term reality likely sits.

Mainstream autonomous agriculture is coming. That is undeniable. Many of the technologies that allow DOT to function without human intervention, in a much safer and more reliable way, stem from current farming practices already built into modern agricultural equipment. We have merely removed the cab and allowed them to do their jobs more effectively and (hopefully) more profitably.

The question is whether we will allow farming processes to be led by the major players in the industry, who will continue to do their best to force farmers down a rigid path of technology adoption, potentially locking out the shortline manufacturers (the heartbeat of the Prairie manufacturing industry). Instead, we want to lead the charge from our side — putting the farmers’ interests first.

The intention of DOT and the Dot Ready™ Implement program is to empower other implement manufacturers to harness their innovative instincts and imagine what their products might look like if powered by autonomous technology. I suppose we are attempting to push others into thinking about what the future might look like for their products when they harness data and connectivity to the benefit of the farmer.

There will be some who feel there is nothing to see yet, that there is no reason to jump on-board. We all understand this choice. But to suggest this is a future too far out to concern ourselves with is selling short the incredible momentum permeating through the industry.

All segments of our economy and facets of our lives that consist of moving things are ripe for disruption in the coming years. Some sooner than others. The building blocks, though, are in place today. We can concern ourselves with liability, but that’s an excuse. Insurers are well down the road to understanding how autonomy will lower their risk, not raise it. We can look to job loss; however, the industries in question generally have a very difficult time finding qualified people today as is. The impediments are most often human, and fear-based as opposed to technological.

Every manufacturer in business right now started as an innovative idea. Without that innovation, incremental or radical, these employers would not exist. At times, there are external pressures that force our hand; and I believe this time is upon us now. Substantive change creates opportunity, and that time of change is here.

Some of us have already started down that path. But, for the sake of the vibrant manufacturing community we are part of, we hope more will join soon.

Trent Meyer is the executive vice president of SeedMaster and Dot Technology Corp., both located in Emerald Park, Saskatchewan.