PROOF OF CONCEPT
BY TREVOR BACQUE • PHOTO COURTESY OF EMILI
Too often, the testing and development of ag products and systems is carried out in bite-sized plots, which leaves farmers to imagine how the results can be put into practice at their farm. The brainchild of Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI) and Farm Credit Canada (FCC), Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert provides clarity.
To advance digital agriculture innovation, the organizations work together at Innovation Farms, located at Gross Isle, MB. The farm annually hosts between 25 and 30 field-scale research projects. These could include drone research or innovative crop scouting methods.
According to Jacqueline Keena, EMILI managing director, the organization’s top priority is to facilitate testing and demonstration of new technology to benefit Canadian farmers. “We want the solutions we test and validate to be farmer-centric,” said Keena. “They need to work in a way that’s real for growers at a commercial scale and able to be deployed and provide value immediately.”
A recent large-scale project partnered EMILI with the University of Winnipeg to collect images from growth chambers and full-scale fields to document the growth stages of all Prairie crops and weeds. The database will be accessible to anyone working on technology to accelerate digital agriculture.
It’s often a challenge to prove out a concept without real world trial data. Innovation Farms is the answer for small- to medium-sized enterprises to collect tangible proof of a product’s effectiveness. This critical data is needed to show investors and farmers a product has merit.
“By partnering with startups and those with new innovations, it allows them an opportunity to test and validate at Innovation Farms and have that knowledge of how [the technology] works in a commercial setting,” said Keena. “It’s going to be useful to demonstrate to farmers how it works … so they have increased confidence it could work on their operation.”
Another key tenet of EMILI is to help train the next generation. Staff at EMILI have partnered with Actua and Ag in the Classroom to deliver agriculture programming to K-12 students. The project has exposed more than 50,000 children to digital agriculture career opportunities since 2021, which includes 11,000 Indigenous students.
Every Innovation Farms project uses FCC AgExpert software to help quantify the research. “Too often we are asking primary producers to be alpha and beta testers of technology or practices. If you’ve got 40, 50 harvests in your life, why would you sacrifice that?” said Fred Wall, FCC marketing and digital agriculture vice-president. “If you have places like Innovation Farms, it just adds a whole different lens when you talk to producers about it. I believe it’s part of a missing link in innovation in ag and food in Canada.”
There is lots of “nice technology,” said Wall, but unless it’s proven, it remains a theoretical tool. The faster Canadian farmers can prove out new concepts, the better off their bottom lines will be.
He believes Canada has “high potential not yet achieved” in this area, and Innovation Farms is a solid starting point. “We’ve got the human capital, incredible natural resources, we grow some of the best ingredients in the world,” he said. “We need to think about ways to de-risk technologies and practices faster and smarter and attract investment differently. Places like Innovation Farms are vital to that mission.”