For more than a century, Olds College of Agriculture & Technology has driven innovation and investment in agriculture in Western Canada. Five years ago, the college launched its Smart Farm as a place where producers and manufacturers can develop new ways to improve yields.
“Farms have transformed. They are larger and more complex than ever and use very complex systems,” said Todd Ormann, associate vice-president, industry solutions and partnerships, at the college. “We have built out a team of researchers that has allowed us to support the development of ag technology in ag environments.”
The Smart Farm focuses on five main areas of applied research — autonomous agricultural equipment, sensors, data utilization, technology development and validation and regenerative agriculture. What started as 110 acres (40 hectares) in Olds, a town one hour north of Calgary in central Alberta, has exploded to encompass 3,600 acres (1,450 hectares) of farmland across six locations, including 800 acres (323 hectares) in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.
To provide the best testing ground, the Smart Farm operates as closely as possible to a commercial farm. It focuses on the agricultural issues affecting Western Canadian farmers and on their most important products: pulses, wheat, canola and beef. The farm is now running more than 70 projects, from testing and proving the use of sensors, to using robotics on the farm, to massive projects involving the layering of data technology that inform farm decisions.
The Smart Farm works with national and international partners including BASF Digital Farming, part of a German multinational, which committed $300,000 in 2021 to a three-year partnership. The project looks at how data can be combined with machine learning to help farmers predict what they can do better.
Olds College is also the lead on the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network, a group that shares data and expertise to help better understand and use farming technology.
Olds College Smart Farm helps local and international investors mitigate risk
Kimberley Worthington, the executive director of the Central Alberta Economic Partnership, says the Olds College Smart Farm helps local and international investors mitigate risk. “They know the technology has been tested, tried and true,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have it as an asset in our region.”
The focus on technology in farming will also attract farm workers and help maintain local and family ownership of farms. Both Ormann and Worthington pointed to a labour gap that will continue to widen over the next few years as young people choose other professions.
“Younger folks aren’t necessarily taking on big family farms,” said Worthington. “Having the Smart Farm will enable them to do so and have the quality of life they’re looking for. They are looking at farming as a farm-management career as opposed to a lifestyle.”