Lack of trained workers, internet service hold back robotic expansion.

Reported by Ed Maixner  (Agri Pulse)

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Photo courtesy: University of Illinois-A vehicle the size of a Golden Retriever, designed and constructed at the University of Illinois, rolls on miniature tank treads between two rows of young plants in Arizona two years ago during a demonstration to assess a crop of semi-autonomous robots.

 

Global sales of agricultural robots will soar to $74.1 billion a year in eight years – from 32,000 units in 2016 to nearly 600,000 in 2024.

That’s what Colorado-based Tractica, technology market consultants, forecast in its late 2016 outlook. Clint Wheelock, Tractica managing director, said this week that projection is still on target as farm robotics technology and production of devices continue to grow in Silicon Valley, China, Europe and elsewhere. Its report says demand is driven by “global population growth . . . declining availability . . . and complexities of farm labor . . . climate change, the growth of indoor farming, and the broader automation of the agriculture industry.”

In the U.S. market, Alpha Brown, an international market research firm, surveyed 1,500 American farmers and ranchers, and found expansion across the farm hi-tech arena, which it estimates has already hit $10.2 billion in annual sales.

However, while 80 percent of U.S. farms invest in such technologies, that survey also found that the strongest interests so far are in farm management software rather than in robotics or data analytics. It found that 77 percent of the farms allocate less than $5,000 per year for technology investment, and only a few spend more than $20,000.

What’s more, Alpha Brown, recognizing a downturn in the farm economy, said in its report, “the agricultural technology market is n2018-09-28_12-13-43ot expected to increase significantly in 2018, and it might even shrink, with only 7 percent of farms stating their intention to increase their technology budget . . .”

Tractica agrees that “market challenges remain.” They include: “limited awareness of robotic systems among growers, insufficient robotic solutions, the difficulty of matching human-like dexterity with machines . . . infrastructure issues,” and more.

While Tractica and other observers point to the worsening scarcity of farm workers as one of the incentives driving investment in robotics, Robert Saik, a founder of Agri-Trend an agronomist and expert in integration of farm technology, says the labor shortage goes much deeper.

“The agriculture sector is desperate for a new kind of student to come out of the schools, and that is a systems integrator,” Saik said.

Yes, he says, “it’s getting harder and harder to find qualified people to operate farm equipment  . . . whether broad-acre ag or horticulture.” But now, “we need somebody to connect these disparate systems. You go from having a guy sitting his butt down on a tractor or sprayer to having a person who makes sure that autonomous vehicles are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s a new career path, a new set of skills for a new type of agriculture,” he noted.

Saik harkened back a few decades to when the hydraulic system connectors from leading tractor and farm implement companies did not match up with one another. Separate adapting couplers were required and farmers were constantly getting sprayed with hydraulic oil when trying to connect hoses. “Today’s growers are covered in digital hydraulic oil,” trying to interface their robotic and other high-tech devices and software, he says.

“Increasingly, we should be putting pressure on the equipment manufacturers and the data companies to make sure the data can flow seamlessly regardless of the platform or the device the farmer is using,” Saik said.

Rabobank, in fact, recently recommended the same expansion of farm tech expertise by its clients who are agricultural equipment dealers. Its experts see “product extension as a better way to capture value as the next phase of technology and mechanization takes hold on North American farms.”

Such extensions, Rabobank says, mean “selling and servicing new emerging high-tech equipment, including autonomous tractors, drones and robots . . . providing value-added fee-based agronomic extension advisory services to the dealers’ existing customer base,” plus selling a broader range of “small and medium-sized equipment geared toward sectors beyond row crop farming.”

Another elephant in the farm tech challenges space is broadband access across farmsteads and fields.

Where interconnections of robotics, broadband service, data analytics, and other farm devices in the so-called “internet of things” are considered, lack for broadband internet access “is one of the biggest pain points for agriculture today,” Saik said. “We cannot run robotics on the farm solely off cellular.”

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“What is going on today,” he added, “is convergence on the farm. I am making the assumption that by 2023 we will have ubiquitous connectivity, and that will allow us to create Wi-Fi mesh domes over farming operations.”

Wireless Infrastructure Association President Jonathan Adelstein agrees: “You need a strong wire line and wireless out to rural areas to make precision agriculture a reality.” Mobile telephone signals accommodate many farm tech applications, he says, but,”depending on the application, sometimes you need 4G and sometimes you need 3G.”

Despite the challenges for farm robotics, Tractica’s long-term forecast suggests a great farmers’ love affair with robots is inevitable, led by “driverless tractors, agricultural drones, materials . . . and soil management robots.”

Indeed, examples of cost-saving robots abound across the ag sector.

Digital farming company Prospera recently reported a $15 million plan for “transform farms” end to end digitalization – extending their systems for digital systems to handle all aspects of production, labor management and other operations.

Robotic weeders are also on tap: Deere & Co., for example, bought a young field-robotics company, Blue River Technologies, last year for $305 million and is preparing a “see and spray” weeder for the field.

Meanwhile, Taskin Padir, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, described to Agri-Pulse his project to put robots in charge of some tasks in fish and seafood processing at a plant in Maine.

Most fish in his New England coastal area gets caught and shipped abroad for processing, he says, because the local plants don’t have the capacity to handle the whole catch. The goal, he said, is to boost output and efficiency at the Maine processing plant by getting robots to perform “dull, dirty and dangerous tasks,” while adding safe, good quality jobs for trained workers there.

For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture,” says Leading Agtech Entrepreneur

Reported by Jack Heald  (AgFUNDER NEWS)
Editor’s Note: The Thought Leaders in Agriculture series is presented by IntelinAir, makers of AgMRI: a digital decision support system for farmers using aerial imaging. The first in the series is a conversation with Robert Saik, founder of Agri-Trend, a digital agronomy business that was acquired by Trimble in 2015.

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Agricultural futurist Robert Saik is a professional agronomist and certified agricultural consultant. He has published over 50 articles on crop agronomics and is a thought leader on the integration of technology in crop production.

Robert was awarded the 2014 Canadian Agri-Marketer of the Year by the Canadian Association of Agricultural Marketers.

He is the executive producer of KNOW IDEAS Media (Facebook / YouTube) which is dedicated to providing science-based education on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Robert has founded over 15 companies ranging from field diagnostic and sensory technology firms, fertilizer manufacturing, fertilizer distribution, agri-retail, agricultural consulting and farming including a pure-bred cattle operation.

Imagine you are giving a “State of the Union” speech for agriculture. What are the main points you would make?

Regardless of what food “religion” you believe in – whether you’re vegan, paleo, organic, GMO, non-GMO or whatever denomination you come from – the one thing we all agree on is that agriculture must be infinitely sustainable. Otherwise, the human race doesn’t exist.

We must remember how fragile we are. The human race lives off six inches of topsoil that feeds all the plants and animals on the planet. Agriculture must adopt and utilize new sciences and technologies as they emerge.

As society has evolved, and people get more urban, fewer people are on the land actually growing the crops. There’s a divorce between what agriculture currently is and people’s perception. And perception is not reality.

Farmers today are very sophisticated, running multiple computers, data sets, doing amazing things with technology integration. The image of agriculture with a lot of urban consumers is still one of round-fendered pickup trucks, bib overalls, a straw hanging out of the mouth and a red barn. And that’s just not agriculture today.

Agriculture must be infinitely sustainable.
Otherwise the human race doesn’t exist.

Agriculture continues to evolve and continues to integrate new technology. Our ability to feed the planet is certainly there.

More people die of obesity than they do of starvation. We are at the lowest incidence of global poverty ever; less than 800 million people are living at the extreme poverty level, which is still a huge number, but much lower than a decade ago and a screaming success for agriculture.

If we implement the technologies at our disposal, we can vastly increase the quality of agricultural output and decrease our environmental footprint.

Let’s talk about data-driven agriculture. What technologies are the most promising in the near future?

First is field sensor technology. Whether it’s moisture sensors placed in the field, nutrient sensors placed in the field, leaf sensors to detect evapotranspiration rates – all of those things are interesting.

Then there’s aerial imaging and analytics for early-stage detection of problems.

For in-season data acquisition, you have drones, fixed-wing craft, microsatellites and macro satellites. As you go higher in the air the resolution decreases.  High-resolution aerial imagery is really important. When we’re dealing with crops, we need to have a high-enough resolution that we can actually determine what we’re looking at. And we need to be alerted as to where in the field issues are cropping up. Timely information helps the farmer or agronomist pinpoint the precise location of a problem in the field.

Let me explain the scale of this problem.

We work with many farmers that have five, 10, fifteen, 30,000 acres. Hundreds of fields. Here’s the problem: how do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted by a nutrient deficiency, a biotic or an abiotic stress?

Can the farmer on a 15,000 or 30,000-acre farm scout that land detailed enough and fast enough to provide actions in real-time? The answer is self-evident.

But with aerial imagery and analytics, that’s one of the problems that I think we’re starting to crack.

One of the keys to making this technology work is the rapid acquisition of data. Fixed-wing aircraft can get large swaths of land frequently. That’s the first step.

How do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted?

Then, you have to ingest terabytes worth of data. That sheer amount of data used to be a significant issue, but increasing computing power makes us able to ingest all that data quickly.

Once you’ve got the images, you combine digital image analysis with artificial intelligence. Now – in very little time – you can perform anomaly detection and change detection. You can see the degree of completeness of the seeding rows. You can even do weed detection.

All of those things can be brought into a machine-learning type of algorithm. And ultimately, that can alert the farmer: “Hey! Of the hundred fields you have, these four fields have an alert right now. These certain parts of this field that should be scouted out immediately.”

And the software will point you exactly to those areas where you should go walk.

Why do you consider the disconnect between the perceptions of urban consumers and the reality of agricultural producers so important?

Because concentrations of population in urban centers understand less and less about agriculture. Activist groups combine that ignorance and then leverage social media to create absolute hysteria around things that are non-issues.  

They use fear to generate membership sales and to propagate panic in urban consumers. That ultimately leads to poor policy implemented by politicians, which ultimately strips tools out of farmers hands.

You have a population, an urban population that can vote to tear the tools and the technology away from agriculture’s hands. And I don’t have to go very far to give you examples. GMO is a breeding technique. And CRISPR technology is more precise than traditional breeding techniques.

The more science you understand, the more you understand the science of genetic engineering, the more you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

And yet that’s not what the average consumer is being led to believe.

Please comment about the recent decision out of the EU that limited the use of CRISPR technology?

It’s absurd. It’s an ill-formed, ill-conceived decision that basically grounds European agriculture in 2001-era technology.

I’ve read the ruling. The ruling basically said that CRISPR technology is deemed “the same as GMO technology.” They equated the precise editing of genes in an organism to “transgenic,” which is moving genes back and forth between organisms.

According to the ruling, if you expose seeds to mutagenesis – which is chemo or nuclear mutation – that’s okay. As long as you mutated the crops before 2001. That’s “old” mutagenesis or “old” mutation. But if you mutate crops using those methods today, that’s “new” mutagenesis.

The more science you understand, you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

So what they basically said is this: the random scrambling of chromosomes underneath the archaic science that we had in 2001 is perfectly fine. But when you specifically edit one or two genes to prevent a disease or a fungus or fight some sort of a pest problem, that’s deemed as a “genetic interference.”

And so it falls underneath the Precautionary Principle which basically says, you have to prove things are not harmful to the environment and not harmful to human beings. That’s impossible to do. You can’t prove a negative.  

So the Precautionary Principle will stymie all development of breeding in the European Union.

What are some of the second-order effects of the ruling?

Those scientists working on CRISPR technology, gene editing, genetic engineering, will be leaving the EU. They have no incentive to work on that technology in a jurisdiction where you can’t commercialize it.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.” It’s unfortunate for them, but it’ll create opportunities for those jurisdictions around the world that can adopt a new technology.

I fear that this European Union ruling on CRISPR will also condemn many African nations to perpetual darkness in terms of agricultural science because a lot of African nations take their lead from EU policy.

What are the effects on the market as a result of this EU decision? How can those outside of the EU take advantage of this situation? What are the natural advantages that are going to accrue because of this situation?

There are some opportunities.

The USDA has already determined that CRISPR technology is not the same as transgenics. So it’s going to give those of us that adopt this new technology a leg up.

Germany is suffering a drought right now. If you had access to science, you’d be able to breed crops that are more drought tolerant.

What opportunities are going to open up for other technologies in the EU? What I’m thinking is – because we’ve got crops that don’t have the opportunity to be genetically modified, to be resistant to pests or various organic disease processes – it would seem that scientists who create technologies to help get an early warning for those kinds of things will have a bigger opportunity.

If you were in the EU right now, and you’re looking at your options for herbicide control, one option is tillage, which is not good for the soil and also not good for greenhouse gas balance.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.”

However, if you can’t use herbicide-tolerant crops – because GMOs aren’t allowed – then what are your options? You can use a specific cultivation. Or early detection of weed outbreaks, where you can spray out a certain portion of the crop with a specific herbicide at that location. Those are going to be very important. But those are important everywhere in the world.

Not once in my 35-year career have I ever heard a farmer say, “I want to spend more money on fertilizer and crop protection next year.” Farmers want to spend less.

If there are ways for them to find where they have specific problems in the fields – maybe with GIS and GPS technology – and then tie that to variable rate application or site-specific application, then we’d be able to target the problem right in the field.

If we stare into the future, and play out what happened in Europe, there’s only one outcome: ultimate food deprivation for the planet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

They say that 2% of Americans grow the food for the other 98%. That’s not true actually. The real farmers – that grow 80% of the food – represent about 0.25% of the American population. So 0.25% of Americans are what I call “farmers of consequence.” Hell, you could fit most of them into a big-sized football field, and that’s it.

If we stare into the future, and we play out what happened in Europe, and you let that play out, there’s only one outcome. And that outcome is ultimate food deprivation for a chunk of the planet.

As human beings, we have 3 choices when it comes to a population of 9 or 10 billion people. There are only three ways to deal with this issue. One is to kill people. As a species, we’ve had a good run of that. We can kill people. Number two is we can control births. And who’s gonna sign up for birth control on a massive scale? And the third option is to feed people. If you stare into the future – based on European Union rulings right now – they’re going to choose to hurt people. Ultimately, food will become more scarce.

SOME GOOD NEWS ABOUT GLYPHOSATE

By Christopher P. Dufault, P.AG., and Robert Saik, P.AG. CAC

Glyphosate.jpg

These days we are exposed to a great deal of negative, one-sided and inaccurate information in the media and online about a herbicide called gylphosate, often sold under the trade name Roundup.

We interact with farmers and farm organizations on a regular basis.  We understand their concerns with economic sustainability and their interest in environmental stewardship. And we understand the valuable contribution that technological advances have  made in improving the sustainability of agriculture. Now, agenda-driven groups seek to take one of agriculture’s most useful technologies, glyphosate, and end its use through well- orchestrated, alarmist misinformation campaigns.

But what do government surveys  and regulatory decisions tell us?  To understand the real story we turn to an excellent set of data that tracks trends in pesticide use, hazard and risk, over time from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) in Ontario, Canada.  This data, collected using consistent methodology, enables us to learn more about how changing farming practices impact the environment and those working in agriculture.

In this article we’ll talk about:

  • the overall reduction in the amount of herbicide applied in Ontario corn and soybean production;
  • the increased use of glyphosate and benefits versus other herbicides displaced by glyphosate;
  • the reduced hazard and risk from the use of glyphosate, based on indicators called the environmental impact quotient (EIQ) and environmental impact (EI), respectively; and
  • the positive reassessments of the safety of glyphosate by the world’s major pesticide regulators.

USE OF HERBICIDES INCLUDING GLYPHOSATE IN ONTARIO

Every five years, for the past several decades, Ontario has surveyed farmers on their use of pesticides including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The most recent survey dates from 2013-2014 (1).   Today, we are focusing on what this survey tells us about trends in the use of herbicides in corn and soybeans in Ontario.

CORN

Between 1983 and 2013, the total amount of figure 1herbicide used in field corn in Ontario declined by 39% (Figure 1). This reduction is primarily due to the increased use of glyphosate, which is applied at a lower rate of active ingredient (ai) per acre than the herbicides it replaced, increasing from 1% to 54% of the amount of all herbicides applied to field corn during that period. Furthermore, the decline in the total amount of herbicide applied occurred despite an 11% increase in the area grown to field corn (Figure 1).

figure 2

In that same 30-year period, the yield per acre of field corn increased by 74% (Figure 2).  And due to a combination of the reduced amount of herbicide applied per acre and increased yield, the amount of kg ai of all herbicides applied per bushel produced declined by a whopping 70% (Figure 2).

SOYBEANS

Soybeans are also a good news story. Betweenfigure 3.jpg 1983 and 2013, despite the acreage of soybean grown in Ontario increasing by a massive 188%, the total amount of herbicide applied increased by just 47% (Figure 3). As with field corn, this is largely due to the replacement, by glyphosate, of other higher-rate herbicides; usage of glyphosate increased from 2% to 82% of all herbicides applied during that time frame (Figure 3).

figure 4

In that same 30-year period, the yield of soybean increased by 53% (Figure 4).   And the amount of kg ai of all herbicides applied per bushel produced declined by an impressive 67% (Figure 4).

AGRONOMIC BENEFITS OF GLYPHOSATE

From an agronomic perspective, glyphosate has been referred to as a “once-in-a-century herbicide” (2). Being a broad-spectrum herbicide, it controls virtually all species of weeds and has been utilized mostly in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant crops since their first appearance in the mid-1990s. Glyphosate also largely eliminates the need for several applications of multiple limited-spectrum herbicide active ingredients that would otherwise be needed to control all the species of weeds present. Not only do these other herbicides generally have  higher hazard/risk profiles (discussed below), but they are often more phytotoxic. The resultant crop damage reduces yields unlike when glyphosate is used in herbicide-tolerant crops. Economists have estimated that if the world ceased to grow genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant crops in the absence of glyphosate, the annual loss of farm income would be $6.76 billion and there would be substantial declines in the production of soybean, corn and canola (3).

The widespread adoption of glyphosate has also resulted in decreased tillage (or soil cultivation) as farmers have  adopted minimum or zero tillage growing systems. This has profound implications because reduced tillage means lower greenhouse gas emissions from burning less fossil fuel as well as from reduced decomposition of organic matter in the soil. Additionally, the associated increase in soil tilth brings better water holding capacity and increased soil health.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT QUOTIENT (EIQ) AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT (EI) OF GLYPHOSATE

Based on the data just cited, it is apparent that the amount of herbicide used to produce field corn and soybeans in Ontario has declined due to glyphosate largely replacing other major herbicides that are applied at higher rates.  But, does a lower rate of application also mean reduced risk?

In conjunction with the results of the pesticide use survey, Ontario also published a report on the environmental risk associated with pesticide use in Ontario (4). This report used an Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) to estimate the hazard associated with the use of each pesticide recorded in the survey.  Essentially, the EIQ is an indicator of the potential of a pesticide to cause  harm. The EIQs for different pesticides can be compared and the higher the EIQ value, the greater the possible harm such as to farm workers, consumers and ecosystems.

Different way of calculating an EIQ are found in the published literature. The particular EIQ used by Ontario in this study is calculated based on data taken from 12 different data points from safety tests conducted on pesticides in the laboratory and the field. Briefly, these include measures of short- and long-term toxicity in laboratory animals, half-life, whether systemic in plants (i.e., tendency to circulate through plant tissues), leaching and runoff potential, and toxicity to several species of non-target animals.

The reported EIQ for glyphosate was calculated to be just 15.3 which is the tenth lowest EIQ of all the pesticide active ingredients from the survey. Furthermore, glyphosate has partially replaced the use of herbicides with higher EIQs, including atrazine (EIQ = 22.9) in corn, and metolachlor/s-metolachlor (EIQ = 22.0) in corn and soybeans, meaning it is less hazardous than these herbicides. This low EIQ for glyphosate is not surprising, considering that it is “less acutely toxic than common chemicals such as sodium chloride (salt) or aspirin” (2).

So, what about risk? This can be called environmental impact (EI) and is essentially hazard (EIQ) multiplied by exposure (i.e., amount used). Not only does glyphosate have  a lower EIQ than the 2018-10-02_21-04-09.jpgabove-mentioned major herbicides that it replaces, but it is also recommended in Ontario for application at a lower rate per acre than the other herbicides when applied on their own (5).  Whereas, the Ontario study (4) calculated EIs for the use of glyphosate in the whole province, we have done so on a per acre basis.  The combination of factors – lower EIQ and lower rate – means the EI for glyphosate per acre of field corn, for example, is about 60% less than for the major herbicides that it replaces (Figure 5).

REGULATORY STATUS OF GLYPHOSATE

So, all the above is good news for producers and the environment. But it’s fair to say that the 12 data points used in estimating the EIQ are taken from a fraction of all the health and environmental studies done to assess the safety of pesticides. And, there’s the 2015 report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO)  that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (6).

This report has engendered much controversy as evidenced by the many, contrasting points of view on the subject that can be found on the internet. We will simply say the following:

  • The IARC report took account only of published toxicity data on glyphosate.
  • The IARC report was a hazard assessment that would take account of how glyphosate is used.  Remember hazard x exposure = risk.
  • The pesticide regulators in each country in which glyphosate is registered have access to much more substantial and relevant data sets than does IARC.  For example, in addition to reviewing and validating published data, these organizations also review the extensive body of toxicology studies from registrants that are conducted using internationally- accepted protocols. These latter studies are also required to meet stringent Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) guidelines such as those of the Organization for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) (7).
  • Regulatory agencies update their reviews of all registered pesticides at regular intervals; Canada and the USA do so every 15 years. And virtually all the pesticide regulatory agencies in the world, that have  recently updated their reviews of glyphosate, have  reconfirmed its safety and renewed its registration, in contrast to IARC’s assessment of glyphosate as being “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Here’s a small sampling of what some of these regulatory agencies have published:

  • In March 2017, the European Chemicals Agency reported their determination that glyphosate is not classified as a carcinogen (8).
  • In its draft “Revised Glyphosate Issue Paper: Evaluation of Carcinogenic Potential” document for public comment dated December 12, 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that it had reviewed close to 170 epidemiological, animal carcinogenicity and genotoxicity studies, and that the available data do not support a carcinogenic process for glyphosate (9).
  • On April 28, 2017, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA)  reported in its completed re-evaluation of glyphosate that it is “unlikely to pose a human cancer risk.” In explaining why PMRA’s conclusions differed from those of IARC, PMRA stated “. . . the level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, was not taken into account by IARC ” (10). PMRA renewed the registration of glyphosate in Canada with only minor label changes.

CONCLUSIONS

While both corn and soybean acreage AND yield have  increased in Ontario since 1983, the overall environmental impact of herbicide use per acre has declined in large part because glyphosate has displaced other more harmful major herbicide chemistries.

This reduction in risk is due to 1) glyphosate being less hazardous, based on the EIQ, compared with these other herbicides, and 2) glyphosate being applied at a lower rate. Major regulatory agencies, such as Canada’s PMRA, have  recently reconfirmed the safety of glyphosate and renewed its registration.

Glyphosate has played a key role in enabling many farmers to achieve excellent weed control in herbicide-tolerant crops while adopting reduced or zero tillage. This reduction in cultivation has positive implications for the environment in terms of soil health, water holding capacity and greenhouse gas balance.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Christopher P. Dufault is a Professional Agrologist, and the former head of the Re-evaluation and Use Analysis Section of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency in Canada. Currently, he is a Senior Agri-Coach with Agri-Trend and Principal of Christopher P. Dufault & Associates Inc., based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  Christopher.dufault(at)cantab.net. Robert Saik, a Professional Agrologist and Certified Agricultural Consultant, is the founder of Agri-Trend and Principal of Saik Management Group Inc., based in Olds, Alberta, Canada. Rob@RobertSAIK.com 403-391-0772. Neither has ever  worked for any manufacturer of glyphosate.

___________________________________________________________________________________

REFERENCES

  1.   Farm & Food Care Ontario. 2015. Survey of Pesticide Use in Ontario, 2013/2014. Estimates of Pesticides Used on Field Crops and Fruit and Vegetable Crops. http://www.farmfoodcareon.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/10/ONTARIO-Pesticide- Use-Survey-Final-2013.pdf
  2.   Duke, Stephen O. and Stephen B. Powles.2008. Mini-review. Glyphosate: a once-in-a-century herbicide. Pest Management Science.  64:319-325.  https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/17918/PDF
  3.   Brookes, Graham, Farzad Taheripour and Wallace E. Tyner. 2017. The contribution of glyphosate to agriculture and potential impact of restrictions on use at the global level. GM Crops & Food. Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain. 8: 4: 216-228.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2017.1390637
  4.   Van Eerd, Laura  L. 2016. Environmental Risk of Pesticide Use in Ontario: 2013/2014 Pesticide Use Survey. http://www.farmfoodcareon.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/10/EIQSurvey2013FINAL.pdf
  5.   Publication 75A Guide to Weed Control. Field Crops. 2018 [OMAFRA]. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/pub75/pub75A/pub75A.pdf
  6.   IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. 2015 https://www.iarc.fr/en/media- centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
  7.   Good Laboratory Practice (GLP).  http://www.oecd.org/chemicalsafety/testing/go od-laboratory-practiceglp.htm
  8.   Glyphosate not classified as a carcinogen by ECHA 2017  https://echa.europa.eu/-/glyphosate- not-classified-as-a-carcinogen-by-echa
  9.   Revised Glyphosate Issue Paper.  Evaluation of Carcinogenic Potential 2017. https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA- HQ-OPP-2009-0361-0073
  10.   Re-evaluation Decision RVD2017-01, Glyphosate. 2017. https://www.canada.ca/en/health- canada/services/consumer-product- safety/reports-publications/pesticides-pest- management/decisions-updates/registration- decision/2017/glyphosate-rvd-2017-01.html
 

 

 

 

What is the Future of Your Farm?

Reported by Christina Herrick  (Senior Editor of American Fruit Grower® magazine, published by Meister Media Worldwide.)

Where is the future of farming going? How is all the new technology being developed going to be integrated on the family farm in the next 20 years?

Saik_Robert-150x150Robert Saik

Robert Saik, Founder of the Agri-Trend Group of Companies (now part of Trimble Navigation), Professional Agrologist, and Certified Agricultural Consultant, gave us a look at how this new technology will affect your family’s farm today and in the future during the latest installment of the GenNext Webinar Series, which was sponsored by BASF.

Saik started his presentation by framing the current pulse of farming and the current pulse of technology.

“The problem we’re having with agriculture is most people are just floating down the river, not thinking much about the currents that are pulling us along,” he says.

One of these powerful currents is the huge amount of data generated on farms. Saik estimates it’s about 5 exabytes every 15 minutes. One exabyte is equivalent to 1 billion gigabytes. Essentially, it’s a lot of information.

In fact, computing power also is speeding up at a rapid pace. Saik estimates computing power in the next five years will be the same speed as the human brain and by 2050, it’s going to be as fast as the entire population combined.

“Technologies are bringing everything together, and it’s no different on the farm,” he says.

Perfect Storm
This is what Saik calls the convergence, the rapid development of new technologies and the need of agriculture to seek solutions to disease, pests, labor, low yields, etc. It’s essentially a perfect storm.

And this perfect storm is the perfect opportunity for the next generation. Saik says the best people for the job are able to tie the needs of agriculture with the rapidly developing technology.

“The field of agricultural technology is just going to explode,” he says. “A huge opportunity exists to tie practical agriculture with this technology integration.”

And Saik suggests young growers who have family members reluctant to incorporate some of these new technologies on their operations get them started right away.

“Get it loaded into a smartphone and give them one job to do,” he says. “Start off with something simple and turn them loose. They’ll start to have some fun with it and it has to be fun.”

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Going Forward
At this point, there has been a lot of data generated on your farm. But the next step is to apply that data throughout the farm to give a snapshot of the overall operation. Saik said microsatellites and drones will become a larger part of scouting, where you’ll be able collect images of different parts of your operation with high-resolution inexpensive imagery.

You will be able to spot trouble spots (water stress, diseases, etc.) from the sky in real time and be able to apply the information collected to make decisions on the farm.

“You could actually diagnose a root problem from space,” he says.

Saik says cellular mitosis sensors have potential implications on your farm. He included an image of a tomato with this sensor and explains how it would help your operation.

“As the tomato is expanding, it will tell us how rapidly the tomato is growing so we can match water and fertilizer with that tomato growth,” he says.

In the end though, Saik says, the data collected isn’t the endpoint of precision agriculture. As more data is collected, it is going to be crucial that you understand how to apply the data you’re collecting.

“None of this works unless it’s in your hand. We need to have a strong and robust data management platform,” he says. “We need to know what causes those problems and why those problems are there and we need to know how to fix those problems.”

To view the webinar On Demand, click here.

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Get There First

Reported by Maggie Van Camp (Senior Business Editor CountryGuide)

Agriculture is constantly moving the yardsticks, which means there’s always a new business opportunity on the horizon. So, asks Rob Saik, founder of Agri-Trend: What are you waiting for?

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This fall Country Guide chatted with Rob Saik founder and CEO of Agri-Trend as the innovative coaching company celebrates 20 years in business. He talked about the struggles of being and staying ahead of the innovation curve, the stumbles and wins, and what it was like to sell Agri-Trend to Trimble, the U.S. precision agriculture company.

“Often innovation doesn’t come from thinking outside the box; it comes from having a really small box,” says Saik.

The particular “small box” Saik is talking about right now is the tight window f

or producing crops in Western Canada, with only about 35 days to get the seed in the ground and under three months to grow it, followed by a quick harvest before winter sets in. Then, to top it off, we have to store our own grain and get it to export markets across a mountain range.

“Limits tend to spur creativity because we have to find solutions based on the constraints of the box,” says Saik.

Back in 1997, the box was smaller, but transformative production techniques were emerging. No till, glyphosate-tolerant crops and GPS were gaining a toehold in Canada.

That was the year Saik started Agri-Trend, a new concept born from the need to make decisions based on data, not guessing or estimating from previous years. He had seen this knowledge-management gap play out in his Two Hills, Alta. fertilizer business with many farmers simply asking for last year’s blends or what their neighbours were applying. Quality soil information was seldom available, hard to understand and difficult to put to practical use.

A year earlier Saik had been returning from a trip to the Middle East consulting on the use of sulphur for production of irrigated tomatoes grown in the desert. As he flew over the patchwork of the Prairies toward home, his heart stirred. This was home. He loved Canada and the farmers here. Then it struck him: Why wasn’t he helping Canadian farmers do better?

When he got home Saik pulled out a sket

ch of a business model he had created a few years earlier while attending a coaching program for entrepreneurs. The program, which he still attends, is about leadership and how to switch thinking from the selling of products to building a relationship business tied to processes and data management.

It was a rough map of a coaching/data management concept for farmers. At its core was a team of highly qualified, respected coaches who would give advice based on collected individual farm data, such as connecting fertilizer recommendations to soil sampling and yields. The coaches would operate their own separate businesses in various locations throughout the country, although all would use one data platform, under one administration and one brand.

Most importantly, their recommendations would not be linked to selling products, but to simply providing good service and to help farmers be more profitable and more sustainable.

“I wanted to design a business that was not based on the sale of inputs but rather used data such as soil or tissue tests interpreted by professionals to help famers make better decisions,” says Saik.

At the time, this was definitely out-of-the-box thinking. Large volumes of data were hard to manage, especially in remote farm areas. The internet was still in its infancy, although connectivity was slowly growing.

Additionally, government extension services were being reduced, which created opportunities. However, a big question remained: Would farmers pay for advice they had previously received for free?

“I like to be an early adopter,” says Saik. “I’ve always been good at connecting the dots, listening to other industries, other businesses and bringing ideas back to agriculture. I thought we could build a business using the internet to connect coaches and farmers.”

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Saik’s own experiences farming and working in the industry meant he knew firsthand the potential value of systematically tying decisions to data backed by professionals.

It started with soil testing, fertilizer recommendations and crop rotations. Saik created a 10-Step Soil Interpretation Process that is still in use today, tied to a Strategic Crop Plan that would be customized by Agri-Coaches for each individual farmer.

Saik also envisioned a model that could eventually be replicated through specifically qualified people into a fully integrated system connecting all aspects of a farm using an online, internet-based platform effectively to help farmers grow the crop, sell the crop and manage the money.

Making a start

Saik started with a challenge. How could he make people understand the concept — a unique agricultural business with no products to sell, no assets, and a model never done before.

He quickly found how important it was, when he started looking for a startup loan to get the business rolling.

Saik walked out of the bank with only a $35,000 limit on a business credit card. But it was enough to get started. “One of the most difficult parts was trying to explain that it was a data-based system and we were using the internet… it was just starting,” he says. “Very few people got it.”

However, the most difficult part was trying to explain the financial risk to his family and friends. “I had five sets of eyes staring back at me over the kitchen table wondering how we were going to make it,” recalls Saik. “It was kind of scary.”

The key to the model was the development of the Agri-Data platform (now Trimble Ag Software) enabling connectivity to farmers everywhere at any time. “In 2001 we went into the cloud, before there was a cloud,” says Saik.

He says timing played into the successful launch of the concept. The downsizing of government extension services loosened up a lot of talent, and farmers were looking for unbiased advice. Plus, no till and GMO seed technology were enabling larger-scale production units, and GPS and field mapping were just starting to be used.

Darren Howie, Elston Solberg, Kevin Pattison and many others began to build the coaching network. Other well-known, trusted names came on board, including retired professors, former top extension staff, and well-respected farmers and agribusinesses.

In the early days Saik travelled across Canada using his comedy alter ego, Steve Stubblejumpski, as a way to talk to farmers, and then he’d quickly explain and sell the new service. Slowly the ones who wanted a systematic process to making decisions came on board. Word spread about the service, and Canada’s first agricultural consulting business was born.

Many of Agri-Trend’s first clients are still using their services today, and several of these farms have transitioned to a next generation. “It was coaching, not consulting,” says Saik. “We wanted a long-term relationship and that’s what we got.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

The cash balance

With a grimace, Saik remembers one of many cash crunches as they were building the business, adding services, adding coaches and expanding across the country. In April 2005, they had maxed out their operating line. He was having lunch with a friend sharing his worries that the company couldn’t keep going. “My buddy asked me how much I needed and right there wrote me a cheque for $70,000, saying, ‘Pay me back when you can.’”

It was a pivot point. Agri-Trend continued to expand, and today offers Agri-Coach, Market-Coach and Farm Business-Coach professionals who deal with everything from business transition to grain market strategies and the integration of precision management.

Not everything they tried has worked. For example, livestock coaches and coaches to help manage oil leases didn’t work. On the other hand, the carbon trading division took off and now the Agri-Trend Aggregation is the largest trader of agricultural carbon credits in Canada.

Further afield

While growth in Canada was on track, expansion south of the border was proving to be a challenge. North of the border, the majority of coaches are independent entrepreneurs who built their own businesses while being connected to Agri-Trend. However, health care considerations in the U.S. impose a different dynamic there, making it riskier to go independent, so Agri-Trend had to look for a different model.

In 2008, Saik was approached by a group of John Deere dealerships looking to fill the gap between technology, hardware, agronomy, data and the equipment. That conversation was the start of a distribution relationship Agri-Trend has with John Deere and Case dealerships throughout the U.S., and now globally through

the Trimble Vantage dealer network.

Continued growth requires continual capital and in 2014 the Agri-Trend board of directors suggested Saik work with a New York investment banker to seek a significant equity injection. “We just could not find the capital pool we needed in Canada,” explains Saik. “For me, this was a major frustration but the process led to our discussions with Trimble. We locked eyes, and the deal made sense, so we moved forward.”

In November 2015, Trimble acquired privately held Agri-Trend to complement their precision agriculture hardware and software company. Trimble gained a strong network of professional coaches to expand services and Agri-Data, which Saik says is “one of the most elegant and strongest data platforms on the planet.”

Agri-Trend was kept intact and the people and systems could be taken internationally. Today it is expanding across continents, finding its way onto farms in South America, Africa, Europe and Australia, exporting Canadian-made technology globally.

“Trimble doesn’t sell inputs, they don’t buy grain and when it comes to equipment they are colour blind and they have a global vision,” says Saik. “As a business person, you want your business to outlive you.”

Considering Silicon Valley’s current interest in agricultural technology, Saik admits that maybe he should have paid more attention to the broader investment community. When he was looking for suitors he was surprised at how limited the pool of venture capital is in Canada for medium-sized businesses and how most of it is Bay Street-based, which has less understanding and appetite for agriculture.

Now at the precision agricultural conferences, many deep pockets are buying agricultural technology start-ups and those companies are going to be pressured to flip and give big returns.

It’ll be tough going, predicts Saik. “We are going to see plenty of blood on the walls as this ag tech sector sorts out the surviving players.”

CountryGuide

Tips From The Top: Build Your Own Brand

Since this article was released, AGRI-TREND has been acquired by Trimble with Rob Saik working with the Trimble team as Global Business Development, extending AGRI-TREND internationally.

Rob has been a part of the entrepreneur coaching program, Strategic Coach for 24 years now.

Secrets to success from extraordinary entrepreneurs, Part 4

by | Leadership

Market segmentation and recruit

In the spirit of Global Entrepreneurship Week, we invited Strategic Coach clients to share their secrets to success. The fourth in the series is written by Rob Saik, founder and CEO of Agri-Trend in Calgary, Alberta.

Everyone can pinpoint a moment when they’ve stumbled upon words of wisdom that altered their life path. Like a key opening a lock, it’s as if something just clicks, and all of a sudden, everything makes sense.

I fondly remember the words that were a game changer for me: “Build your own brand.”

These words came from Jack Donald, former president and CEO of Parkland Fuel Corporation, Canada’s largest independent marketer of fuels.

I was forty-one at the time, and I remember sitting next to Jack in awe. I had come to a crossroads in my career, not sure if I should take the harder route and go out on my own or merge with another company, and the wisdom he shared gave me the courage I needed to take the next step.

Our conversation about establishing a personal brand, even with the temptation of falling under a larger corporation, had a profound impact on me. I realized the importance of constructing a brand that would maintain the integrity of my vision. I built a brand, and a culture, and I’ll always defend it.

Agri-Trend Inc. was built and grown with a concentrated effort on extending my personal vision of the perfect brand. It was about much more than a logo to me.

I asked myself, “How do our clients feel? What tone does our company set with them? What is the culture around the brand? Is our team proud of what we’re doing?”

Regardless of who we’re collaborating with, we wanted our own message to stand out. We’re about fun, professionalism, pride, and, all in all, being a cutting-edge firm.

It’s important to me to be true to myself and my passion. My business revolves around who I am as a person, and I’m focused on creating value extending far beyond my company to the broader community by being a champion for agriculture.

My decision to trust my gut and listen to the advice from my mentor allowed me to grow Agri-Trend to meet my personal values—a good indication that success aligns with who are we internally. It’s a lesson in life and business.

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE

View From The Top: Robert Saik

Reported by Nate Birt (AGWEB Powered by Farm Journal)

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Robert Saik, CEOBackground:  Born on a farm in Alberta, Canada, Robert Saik (robertsaik.com) studied agronomy and ag economics at university and went on to specialize in soil chemistry, plant physiology and crop nutrition. He built two independent fertilizer retailers in his 20s and in 1997 founded AGRI-TREND, a professional ag coaching network, and AGRI-DATA, an online ag management platform, which Trimble acquired in 2015. He is the author of “The Agriculture Manifesto” and the executive producer of “Know GMO,” a film project about genetic modification.

Education: Bachelor of science in agriculture from the University of Alberta in Edmonton

Books every leader should read: “Abundance,” by Peter Diamandis. Our ability to work through problems with technology is pretty promising.

Leaders you admire: Jerry Stoller of StollerUSA is an unsung hero. Another is Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach.

Favorite quote for entrepreneurs: Give me a problem, get out of my way and let me work on it.

Why do you think people are such an important component of useful agricultural technology?

As we get wireless communication technology through our cellphones or Wi-Fi meshes on farms, the ability to connect to devices to bring in more sensory data will explode. The ability to handle that data is going to be a real challenge because there is going to be so much of it. While I think agriculture will take advantage of where we’re going technologically, I think it will always have a high-touch component to it, as well.

I explain this using a pyramid as an illustration. At the bottom is the question “Where?” There are lots of people chasing the question of “Where does the farmer have the problem?” The next question is “What?” It narrows the triangle. Fewer people know what the problem is. Then you start to figure out, “Why is it there?”

The Holy Grail is, “How do you fix it?” High tech at the bottom migrates up to high touch at the top that can be solved by agronomists and other ag experts. Some things will never be programmed into a machine.

We are moving to Agriculture 5.0, which is a convergence of agricultural science with exponential advances in technology. Genetic engineering should allow us to reduce our fertilizer and chemical footprint while providing increased resistance to biotic and abiotic stress. Seeds can be planted at variable rates based on topography and microclimate. Grain and input transactions may be significantly changed through the integration of technology such as blockchain.

What should producers expect from tech firms?

I recently asked a Canadian farmer who was seeding canola, “What value does Agri-Trend bring to you?” He held up a jump drive and he said, “I recognize the fact that you guys have deep agronomy and great science and a data system, but when I’m planting, I want to grab this file, shove it in the controller of my tractor and have it regulate the planter or the air seeder. You make the stick work.”

Precision agriculture is agronomy precisely applied. If you don’t have good agronomy, I don’t care how good the technology is, it’s still bad agronomy.

When did you realize agriculture needed to be proactive in talking about science in farming? 

It was at a rock concert by the Canadian band Chilliwack. There were 650 people in this auditorium. A third of the way through the concert, lead singer Bill Henderson said the next song would be about the poisoning of earth and the patenting of life. It was about an organic farmer in Saskatchewan trying to grow organic canola. Monsanto took him to court and Monsanto won.

Before he started playing, I just shouted out of the darkness, “You’re wrong.” He said, “What?” I said, “I know the facts. You’re wrong and in fact, you’re lying to the audience.” We got into it right there in the middle of the concert. That went on for about one minute, and then I got up and left.

My phone lit up with farmers who were at the concert saying, “Thanks for sticking up for us.” The next day, I wrote a letter to the editor of our paper saying there had been a commotion at the concert and explaining that I caused it and why. It went viral. That was the beginning of my advocacy.

Which misconception bothers you the most?

It’s this pervasive discussion that somehow farmers are not sustainable. It’s just ridiculous. I saw a tweet this weekend from a family that just pulled off its 110th crop on their farm. You don’t get there if you aren’t sustainable. We’ve got all kinds of people on social media who will tell you what farming is, yet they don’t even know what a three-point hitch is.

Talk about some of the projects you’re engaged in to educate the public about ag.

We have raised about $600,000 to do a film called “Know GMO.” My son is the filmmaker and has been in agriculture his whole life. Ninety-seven percent of the money has been raised from Canadian farmers

supporting the project, and we are seeking an additional $500,000. I have an entrepreneurial faith that the project will make a difference in the world. In addition, I am doing a lot of writing and social media work, including creation of memes that are supportive of modern agriculture, at knowgmo.ca.

What is the greatest risk for farmers in terms of consumer perception in the years ahead?

The risk is the continued ripping away of tools out of the agronomic toolbox. The European Union is quickly becoming the museum of agriculture on the planet. The one that gives me greatest concern right now is the anti-glyphosate movement. I have heard it said that glyphosate is a 1-in-100-year chemical. It’s so safe and so efficacious, yet people want to abolish it. What are we going to do, go back to a ton of tillage? Activism leads to fear-mongering leads to politicians creating panic policies.