Report highlights need for national strategy to attract skilled, technology workers to Canadian ag sector

By Tim Kalinowski


RBC recently released its report on the future of the agriculture industry entitled “Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture.”

While many media outlets focused on the report’s central conclusion that Canada could gain as much as $11 billion in GDP by creating a new focus on innovation in agriculture and on the report’s supposition that Canada was now in the throes of its “fourth revolution in agricultural technology,” what was not often made clear by other commentators is that the Royal Bank of Canada is concerned Canadian agriculture is losing momentum and market share due to its lack of skilled technological workers relative to other nations.

Canada is lagging behind, the report suggests, in both home-grown commercial technology development and in attracting the much-needed technological skill-set to propel our ag industry into the future.

“The agriculture sector has led the country in productivity gains over the past 20 years— which works out to about 5.5 per cent annual productivity gains— but in recent years that has slowed down and come back down to earth,” says RBC senior manager for research Andrew Schrumm. “The risk going into the 2020s is that we stay at that lower band of productivity growth.

“Through the paper, what we really try to emphasize is to get that to the longer run average, we need to be filling these shortages in the labour market, but we need to do so by filling them with the right skill-set that can embrace technology in new ways.”

Schrumm says the farm workers of the future will not necessarily be mucking out cattle stalls by hand or spending 10 hours day in a tractor— they will be using precision ag to control the machinery and robotics which will be handling those tasks.

“I think one of the biggest things that jumps out to me as someone who works outside of ag is that a lot of people across the country are just not familiar with the opportunities in this industry,” Schrumm states. “It is a real forward-looking, high-tech industry that the nature of work is changing as quickly as the technology is.”

Schrumm says there is a pressing need in Canadian agriculture to come up with a forward-thinking skills training and recruitment strategy that thinks outside of today’s labour structures to attract engineers, programmers and those with a technocratic background to lay the groundwork for future success and growth. He says the federal government and the private sector both have a role to play in crafting such a strategy.

“Federal leadership in forming a skills strategy is important, and AAFC has certainly done some interesting work to try to outreach to under-represented communities in the sector,” he confirms. “We think when we are looking at the nature of change, and skills demands that we outline in the paper, this needs to be done on a federal level to say: ‘We need to be preparing ourselves for the future state of the industry, and we need to start building those forward-thinking skills today.’”

This skills recruitment and training strategy must be paired with an investment in research and development of new home-grown technologies, Schrumm says.

“When it comes to R & D and innovation, our basic message is if we are developing technology that is not in lock-step with industry than we are not going to capture the gains,” he explains. “What we have seen in the States is industry has taken a more active role in university funding, and R & D more generally on their own turf to try to create these solutions for the future.

“Bottom line, when Canada is innovating we are seeing positive signs like the Protein Supercluster, and this new Automation Cluster through the Canadian Food Innovators Network, which is leveraging both public and private funds.

“In both cases, we are excited about the link they have with educators. So as you are doing this research and innovation, you are including students and teachers along the way; so that means we are cultivating this next generation of workers as well.”

Canada continues to reap the benefits of having one of the largest agricultural land reserves in the world and an abundance of water resources overall, says Schrumm, which has led to one of the longest running agricultural success stories in the history of the world. That historic and continued success remains a bedrock of the Canadian economy and a significant driver of technological innovation, he says, but that does not mean we should not consider other models of how we might drive agriculture in Canada forward which may be different than what we have been used to.

“In Canada, we have the luxury of having a lot of land and a lot of water resources,” Schrumm says. “There are countries out there that have used their limitations to find new solutions— like Holland, for example. Holland with their greenhouse innovation, three quarters of their farm operators have bachelor degrees or higher. So with three per cent of the arable land as Canada, they are producing three times the export per capita as we are.

“There are opportunities for us to think differently, and think selectively, on what and how we produce.”

Courtesy of RBC
Losing ground. Canada’s ag export share had dropped markedly over the past 20 years relative to other nations.