Seeding the Smart Farms of the future at Olds College

By Tim Kalinowski


Olds College is poised to help the Alberta agriculture sector make the transition into a Smart Farm future, says OC president Stuart Cullum, and we should all buckle up for what could be one crazy ride in the years ahead.

“When you are in it, it is hard to understand it,” says Cullum, referring to the astonishing pace of technological change we are seeing the agriculture industry right now.  “Are we in a revolution, an evolution or a transformation? Certainly there is a lot of change that is occurring within our industry. It seems like technology, and the influence of technology and science, is itself accelerating. So it is keeping up to that pace of change almost as much as it is in trying to figure out how to apply technology into practice in its current state. It is something I think the industry is grappling with, and something we as educational institutions need to also sort out.”

The college has made great strides in that direction in the last year alone with the opening of the Werklund Agriculture Institute, and its soon to be opened Growth Centre and Smart Farm, says Cullum.

“What these are really allowing us to do is shape some of our programs in a way which meets the needs of the agricultural sector. The Institute brings in new academic programming which allows our students to learn about smart agriculture technologies, which are certainly part of our agriculture system today. It is going to allow us to develop new ways to provide access for our students to the industry through the producer mentorship program, which partners up students with progressive producers in Alberta in a way which allows them to learn in an applied environment.”

Many of the new Smart Farm programs being brought online deal with connectivity. Cullum explains:

“There is a lot of technology being developed which promises a lot: Precision, application of inputs, great economic viability and performance on the farm… But the issue we often face on the farm is how do you connect all that? And how do we create environments where producers understand how to deal with that technology in an effective and efficient manner?

“You can have the greatest technology, but if you can’t connect it, integrate it, and if it doesn’t perform well, then it certainly is under-utilized and a lot of that value is lost.”

“One of the things we want to establish at Olds College is actually a Smart Farm,” says Cullum, “where we are creating an infield environment and apply a lot of those data collection, sensors, monitoring technologies on field; so that technology can actually be brought onto the field and tested, demonstrated and optimized.”

The greatest asset Olds College has in that regard, says Cullum, is the new generation of tech-savvy young farmers coming through its doors.

“The students walking into our classrooms today are very different from the students who walked into our classrooms 30 years ago or 40 years ago,” states Cullum matter-of-factly. “They come in with a different understanding of how to utilize technology, and they are often that much further ahead.

“I think there is great opportunity to take those very technologically advanced and adept individuals and put them into the agriculture and food production environment, and maximize those skills. We want to really leverage that for the training we can provide.

“It’s really exciting,” he adds. “It can be challenging for us folks who aren’t young, and haven’t been as exposed to technology for as long as these kids have. Agriculture is as much a technology sector now as it is anything else.”

And while Cullum predicts the pace of innovation may accelerate even more in the agriculture sector in the coming years, he feels strongly the college has to keep its eye on the prize: Producing farmers who can be successful in the industry for years to come, and not jumping at every shiny new bauble or promise of technological revolution which comes along.

“One way to deal with that (quickened pace) is not getting too fixated on the technology itself, but focusing on the competencies our students need in order to deal with a (fast-paced) environment like that,” Cullum says. “Those are competencies like critical thinking, creative problem-solving and effective decision-making. There are a lot of skills we can teach which can transcend whatever environment these students are exposed to.

“We are all about training the person to be a good steward of the land and an efficient producer.”