Home Month and Year April 2022 Technology, Agriculture and Research:

Technology, Agriculture and Research:

How Unique Collaborations are Changing the Landscape of Business in Alberta

DOT Seeding Smart Farm for Olds College. Photo Credit: Sergei Belski.

Alberta’s thriving agriculture and technology industries are often seen as separate, but in reality, they are quite entwined. Local technology companies along with innovative farmers are teaming up with Albertan post-secondary institutions in order to harness the incredible potential that lies in the abundant natural and human resources found in Edmonton and the surrounding areas.

One area in which technology and agriculture meet is in the burgeoning plant protein sector. While most people think of Beyond Meat burgers and protein shakes when they think of plant proteins, the possibilities go far beyond these. Plant-based proteins are an economical protein source that can be used in nutritional animal feed and as healthy ingredients in any number of processed foods.

Brad Shapka, President of GrainFrac, knows all about the intersection of agriculture, technology and research. His company utilizes novel technology, originating from research at the University of Alberta, to enhance dry fractionation processing of plant proteins, specifically beta-glucan from barley.

To Shapka, Edmonton is in the perfect position to play a key role in the future of plant proteins on the world stage. “We’ve got this abundance of land, we’ve got fresh water and we are very well positioned to produce the protein the world needs. Rather than exporting commodities, which is not very efficient, it makes far more sense for us to commercialize that capacity here in Alberta,” he says.

In Edmonton in particular,” explains Shapka, “we’ve got a rich history in terms of really developing the manufacturing sector. We have a very strong academic community, a very strong farming community and we also have a lot of government support to innovate and diversify the economy. When you bring those three factors together, it gives rise to a lot of great developments. Right now there is a real eagerness to do bold work.”

Chris Anderson, CTO of Protein Industries Canada, agrees that Edmonton has a unique blend of prairie entrepreneurial resources to offer. Protein Industries Canada is an industry-led not-for-profit organization that focuses on growing Canada’s plant-based food, feed and ingredient sector.

“To me, technology and innovation are the root of opportunity,” Anderson says. “Alberta has a great mix of research capabilities, innovative producers and entrepreneurial spirit that are leading to new companies and new opportunities arising across the province. With research capabilities like University of Alberta, NAIT, Alberta Innovates, the Food Processing Development Center in the area, and Olds College’s Smart Farm just down the road, there is a tremendous amount of innovation infrastructure available.  Coupled with other unique features like the food handling capabilities of Edmonton Airport’s cargo area and being in the heart of a highly productive, diverse crop growing region – Edmonton makes a lot of sense for companies to consider.”

Post-secondary institutions around Alberta are also focusing on the integration of technology and agriculture.

Dr. Joy Agnew, associate VP of Applied Research at Olds College, sees first-hand the innovative agricultural technologies that are being developed right here in Alberta. Olds College’s Smart Farm is a learning and research environment that provides hands-on training in this field.  Students and researchers utilize cutting-edge technologies including robotics, artificial intelligence, connectivity, and sensor technologies on Olds College’s 2,800 acre living lab.

The beauty of the Smart Farm is in its ability to bring together producers, technology partners, researchers and students into a collaborative space where they are able to make advancements in agricultural technologies.

In Agnew’s words, the Smart Farm is “a functioning farm with expertise and infrastructure to do projects and to learn about how technology can integrate into a farm operation as well as what farmers of tomorrow next year and five years down the road are going to need out of technology in order to improve productivity and sustainability of food production.”

According to Agnew, much of the research being done on the Smart Farm at the moment involves robotics. “Robots in the field is one way to think about automation, but the other is automated data flows, automated reporting, and automated decision support systems. All of that falls under the automation umbrella and all of it is really exciting,” she says.

Just down the road, the cows at Huntcliff Dairy are enjoying the results of innovations in robotics and automation similar to those studied at Olds College. Tietsia Huyzer, who owns and operates the dairy along with her husband and daughter, says that they have implemented many types of automated technologies into their dairy that benefit their cows immensely.

“We have adapted technology to make the job easier, to make the job better, to make it more efficient and also in order to improve the welfare for the animals themselves, which is, for us, really important. Happy and healthy cows do a good job of making quality milk,” says Huyzer.

One of the major changes that the Huyzers made on their dairy farm was switching to milking robots. Before automating, the cows at Huntcliff Dairy were milked twice a day in a parlour. Now with the robotic milking technology, the cows are milked on-demand and it has increased the average milking up to three and a half times per day.

The Huyzers also added automated feed pushers that keep feed in front of the cows as well as automated heat detection sensors that aid in breeding. They are also part of a pilot project from the Alberta government to test micro combined heat and power units that convert natural gas into electricity and hot water in order to reduce overheads.

According to Huyzer, utilizing technology on their dairy farm is more than just about the bottom line. She says, “It makes sense economically, but it also makes sense from an emotional standpoint. It is important that you have your work organized in a way that you still enjoy it.”

How ever one looks at it, the integration of innovative technologies and forward-thinking post-secondary institutions with Alberta’s rich agricultural industries is a worthwhile endeavor for everyone involved. Edmonton’s technology sector is perfectly positioned to harness the unique human and natural resources that are so abundant in the region. It will be exciting to see the impact that future agricultural innovations have on the local business landscape. Areas like artificial intelligence, agricultural carbon sequestration, and the implementation of renewable energies could further cement the relationship between technology and agriculture across the province in the not-so-distant future.