Leap Forward: Predicting the future of agriculture

Photo courtesy of SikPics. Used with permission.
Author, historian, teacher and farmer Merle Massie makes some interesting predictions about the future of western agriculture, and how it might find itself changing to meet the new challenges facing it in the days to come.

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


“Farmers have always been at the forefront of innovation, trying to figure out how to farm as efficiently as possible given the tools at hand,” states author, farmer and historian Merle Massie, who was recently invited by Ag-Matters to draw upon her extensive knowledge of agricultural history in western Canada to look into possible futures and leading trends in the industry. “There are all these starts and stops in agriculture. There is kind of stasis for awhile, with minor tinkering, and then there is a new innovation and fairly rapid expansion.”

One of the big technological changes Massie foresees coming is a greater move toward hybrid and electric vehicles in farm work.

“Every major technology change from threshing machines to combines has represented a giant leap (for farmers),” states Massie. “And when there is wide-scale adoption, it changes the face of agriculture. I once read a Globe and Mail article talking about how a Prius can’t pull a seed drill, but I think one of the major innovations we are going to see coming down the pipeline is hybrid tractors which will have the horsepower which is required to do the job we need them to do.”

But this development will likely be tied into an even greater development, says Massie.

“The transition to electric powered machinery only works if you are hooked into a really good electric grid, but the further you get out into more isolated rural areas the grid isn’t as strong. So for those farmers, the infrastructure just isn’t there… If farmers can set up a solar or wind system, and sell back into the grid, then solar or wind becomes a crop, like we see in southern Germany today. Then we are going to see a massive change in what farmers choose to do.”

Massie says the definition of what is considered “a crop” is always changing, and she is excited to see what other things farmers might reach their hands toward in the future.

“Take for example pulses,” she says, “in my lifetime that has become huge to Canadian farming; and it certainty wasn’t when I was kid back in the 1970s. The concept of what is a crop certainly changes. Farmers are always paying attention to that, and the minute there is a policy change that will allow farmers to access things, like wind or solar, as a crop, you will see farmers do that on a wide scale.”

Massie says another technical innovation which could become more pronounced a few years down the road is use of drone machines on the farm in multiple aspects of operations.

“Drone technology intersects with so many different things. It is going to intersect with how your crop is growing; you can see it from the air and kind of map it out that way. In terms of setting up more and more of your machines to perform without you in the field, there is certainly a fascination to that.”

However, Massie feels the human element of farming will continue to be paramount.

“I know on my farm, to set it up to be entirely done by drone, there are way too many rocks for that,” she says with laugh. “And any time you throw a rock through a combine, in the middle of a desperate November harvest, it sets you back even more, to say the least.”

According to Massie, the agricultural technology end of things will usually take care of itself. If it makes an operation more efficient, farmers will always be quick to adopt it. More complicated than this, however, is how social role of farmers may change to adapt to the needs and challenges of future times.

“The social dynamics changes coming around agriculture are as, or perhaps even more, significant than the technological changes coming around agriculture,” confirms Massie. “They always are… Whether those dynamics come into play on issues of trade, whether those networks are effective and working, and all sorts of other things like the dynamics of social license, for example. The social dynamics are a major issue for western Canadian agriculture, and you ignore them at your peril.

“That’s how you end up with things like neonics legislation in Ontario. That’s a prime example of social license and social dynamics having a direct impact on agriculture.”

Those social dynamics are also bound to change based on who is doing the farming, says Massie. She points to the increasing prominence of women and First Nations in western Canadian agriculture as an example.

“We are seeing a fairly interesting gender dynamic in gender shift across agriculture. You see it in the numbers in the College of Agriculture here; there’s more women than men taking the courses. So you see more women all the time being hired by agriculture, chemical companies and so forth. That will have a strong effect on the future of agriculture.

“Agriculture is fascinating. I think the combination of innovation, and the role of marketing, and the conversation about where your food comes from is something women have much to say about.”

In terms of First Nations, Massie sees a massive amount of land now owned by First Nations peoples, who historically played a prominent role in western agriculture. Already many First Nations have begun exploring once more their own possibilities in terms of agriculture.

“What I am seeing is a real surge in First Nations communities to use their own land in terms of building greenhouses, or engaging in local gardening, and the local food market. Take for example Flying Dust First Nation:

“They are near Meadow Lake, and they have a massive market garden that includes warehousing and local food growing. They are hooked into the local retail market, and that is just one of many examples we see growing up.”

But Massie, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, predicts the biggest future impact on western Canadian agriculture, and the innovations which will come to the fore in response to it, is climate change. She draws on her knowledge of history as proof of her prediction. Not all impacts will be negative, she says.

“If the models for climate change are accurate, then western Canada is actually a climate change winner. Meaning that more of our northern soil will become unlocked. If we have a warmer climate it might mean we have more drought, say, in the Palliser Triangle area, and it might mean people have to move further north.

“We have seen that before in western Canada where back in the 1930s people were actively supported with government policy to leave their southern farms and go up to access northern farms. So basically take 160 acres of northern bush and turn it into farms, and many did. They did it by the thousands. That policy changed the face of western Canada into what we know it as today, and it changed agriculture. So we will see that again.”

Massie, who farms near Biggar, acknowledges, in the end, the future is malleable. The book can be written several different ways depending on who is doing the writing, and what circumstances come along which might change the story. And farmers, better than most, understand this idea, and can usually adapt to whatever those possible futures may bring.

“Farmers are subject to the weather and the international markets. In farming, we don’t have any control over what we get for what we make, and that’s a bit of a problem. But we are used to dealing with uncertainty, and that’s why we continue to be on the forefront of innovation.”