‘Our own slice of bread’: Sask. ag-tech industry booming, thanks in large part to support from local farmers | CBC News

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At any time during the growing season, Jake Leguee can look at an app and see exactly how much moisture is in the soil on his farm.

He has installed half a dozen weather stations on his property, third-generation land he farms with his family near Filmore, Sask., in the southeastern part of the province, to make his operations more efficient. The stations track a variety of factors that affect crops, such as air and soil temperatures, moisture levels, and wind. The app, developed by a Saskatchewan agricultural technology company, helps you interpret the data.

“That has really made a difference in the way we manage our crops and makes us more environmentally sustainable, because we’re not putting in inputs if we don’t need them,” says Leguee.

The federal government’s goal of reducing emissions from fertilizer use to 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, which was published two years ago, revived in the public consciousness this spring and summer due to a series of consultations on how this could be achieved.

But Leguee says Canadian farmers have long been working to make their operations, including their use of inputs, as efficient as possible, and a willingness to learn, try and adopt new technologies is critical to the job.

Jake Leguee farms with his wife, children and other family members in southwestern Saskatchewan. (Jake Legee)

That’s part of the reason Saskatchewan has become a hub for emerging agricultural technology, according to several industry experts. In addition, farmers in that province have a history of adopting new technologies and supporting local startups, says Sean O’Connor, CEO of Emmertech, a $60 million Conexus venture capital fund focused on new technologies. Saskatchewan agricultural technology companies.

“Farmers are the most innovative business owners in Canada as far as we’re concerned, and they’re looking for new solutions,” he says.

“You can’t build agtech companies on Bay Street. They belong in ag ecosystems, where you interact directly with the industry itself.”

‘A great place to do business’

Croptimistic Technology is one of the Saskatchewan-based agricultural technology companies with the local love. Launched in 2018 at Naicam, it develops custom Soil, Water and Topography (SWAT) maps for farmers.

“It’s been a great place to do business,” says founder Cory Willness, who worked as an agronomist for many years before launching the company. “In western Canada, in general, there are a lot of farmers who are early adopters.”

Croptimistic’s SWAT maps help farmers identify exactly which parts of their fields require nutrients and which don’t, says Willness, which could lead to about 15 percent more profit. She offered this example: If a farmer spends $5 million on fertilizer and seed, but five percent of his acreage is written off, that’s $250,000 lost.

A man and a woman wearing baseball caps marked 'SWAT Maps' stand with their arms around each other.  In the background, you can see a farmer's field and machinery.
Cory Willness founded Croptimistic Technology with his wife, Shannon, in 2018. They are based in Naicam, Sask., 150 kilometers east of Saskatoon. (Brought to you by Croptimistic Technology)

Croptimistic is in good company. In Regina, Precision AI has developed AI-powered drones that perform fully automated precision spraying, and Ground Truth Ag has created technology that helps farmers analyze and record grain samples in real time to better understand grain quality. crops. In nearby Emerald Park, Crop Intelligence has an app that allows farmers to analyze data from their weather stations to make better production decisions, improving the quality of their crops and their profits.

Potential best performance

This technology could not only save farmers money through reduced crop inputs, but also improve yield potential, says Dr. Stuart Smyth, a research professor in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.

For example, if a farmer has 320 acres and can determine that only five percent of his crops are affected by the disease, the cost of applying pesticides to the entire expanse of land may be greater than the cost of the lost crops.

“I tell my students that in the next decade, the use of these digital technologies certainly has the potential to really revolutionize what production agriculture looks like,” says Smyth.

Agriculture accounted for 10 percent of Canada’s total emissions in 2019, according to the federal government, and from 2005 to 2019, fertilizer use increased by 71 percent.

“It’s a a win for the farmer, and it’s a win for the environmentWillness says of improving fertilizer efficiency. “If regulations are put in place or incentives come along, these folks will be prepared.”

start support

In addition to tech-savvy farmers, Saskatchewan has a supportive startup ecosystem, says O’Connor, with major industry players including Brandt, AGT Foods, Protein Industries Canada and provincial economic development agencies present. and technological, such as Innovation Saskatchewan. – who have prioritized agricultural technology.

I often hear: ‘You will never get involved with the farmers, they just do the same thing their grandfather did.’ But I haven’t seen that at all.– Jason McNamee, Lucent Biosciences

Jason McNamee felt the embrace of this ecosystem when he and his team at Vancouver-based Lucent Biosciences pitched their Soileos idea at a Saskatchewan tech startup competition in 2019. It’s a plant-based fertilizer that advertises benefits like better yields, costs and environmental sustainability. .

Although they did not win the competition, they caught the attention of the CEO of AGT Foods.

“Murad Al-Katib came up to me right after the launch and said, ‘Are you saying what I think you’re saying?’ And he gave me his card,” recalls McNamee.

Months later, AGT and Lucent teamed up with a consortium of other companies to secure a $19 million grant from Protein Industries Canada.

Lucent is currently completing development of its new production facility in Rosetown, Sask., which will employ approximately 20 people and have the capacity to manufacture around 7,000 tons of product per year, to start with. They expect Soileos to be available to Saskatchewan farmers by next spring.

“The agtech community in Saskatchewan is extremely strong,” says McNamee. “I often hear, ‘You’ll never get involved with the farmers, they just do the same thing their grandfather did.’ But I haven’t seen that at all.”

overcoming obstacles

There is still a long way to go for Saskatchewan’s tech industry to really take off, and some significant challenges ahead.

First, more investment is needed, O’Connor says, as evidenced by the fact that $182 million of venture capital was invested in Canadian agtech last year, compared to $4.9 billion in the United States.

A low angle of a green, mature farmer's field with crops.  A row of silos can be seen in the distance.
Jake Leguee says that Canadian farmers have long been working to make their operations as efficient as possible, and a willingness to learn, try and adopt new technologies is critical to the job. (Jake Legee)

One of the challenges of acquiring investments in this sector is that it is a less understood industry, O’Connor says, and this technology takes longer to develop and adopt, which means it takes longer for investors to see the benefits.

Finally, small businesses here struggle to hire local staff, particularly in software development, says Willness.

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges: trying to compete with everyone else to find tech talent. It’s such a hot industry.”

Still, the fact that Saskatchewan is already seeing this degree of development and investment in agricultural technology is good news for Western Canada, says O’Connor.

“For once, it doesn’t belong in the mainstream. Instead of fighting over crumbs, we can get our own slice of bread.”

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