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 installed half a dozen weather stations across his property — third-generation land he farms with his family near Fillmore, Sask., in the southeast 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 temperature, moisture levels and wind. The app, developed by a Saskatchewan agriculture technology company, helps him interpret the data.
“This has really made a difference in how we manage our crops, and it makes us more environmentally sustainable, because we don’t put in inputs if we don’t need them,” says Legue.
The federal government’s goal to reduce emissions from the use of fertilizers by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, which was released two years ago, reignited in the public consciousness This spring and summer because of a series of consultations on how this can be achieved.
But Leguee says Canadian farmers have long worked to make their operations, including input use, as efficient as possible, and the willingness to learn, test and adopt new technology is critical to that work.
That’s part of the reason Saskatchewan has become a hub for emerging ag tech, according to several industry experts. Plus, farmers in the province have a track record of adopting new technology and supporting local startups, says Sean O’Connor, managing director of Emmertech, a Conexus venture capital fund focused on Saskatchewan ag tech startups.
“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 ag tech companies on Bay Street. They belong in agriculture ecosystems, where you’re directly interacting with industry itself.”
‘A great place to do business’
Croptimistic Technology is one of the Saskatchewan-based ag tech companies feeling the local love. Launched in 2018 at Naicam, it develops custom soil, water and topography (SWAT) maps for farmers.
“It was a great place to do business,” says founder Corey Wilness, 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 pinpoint which parts of their fields require nutrients and which don’t, Willness says, which can lead to about 15 percent more profits. He offered this example: If a farmer spends $5 million on fertilizer and seed, but five percent of their acres are a write-off, that’s $250,000 lost.
Croptimistic is in good company. In Regina, Precision AI has developed artificially intelligent 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 crop quality. 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.
Better yield potential
The technology can not only allow farmers to save money thanks to lower crop inputs, but also improve yield potential, says Dr. Stuart Smyth, the research chair in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.
For example, if a farmer has 320 acres and can determine that the disease affects only five percent of their crops, the cost of applying pesticide to the entire tract of land may be higher than that 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 Smith.
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 Win for the farmer, and it’s a win for the environment“, Willness says about improving fertilizer efficiency. “If regulations happen, or incentives come, the people will be prepared.”
On top of farmers interested in tech, Saskatchewan has a supportive startup ecosystem, O’Connor says, with the presence of major industry players, such as Brandt, AGT Foods, Protein Industries Canada, and provincial economic and technology development agencies — like Innovation Saskatchewan. – who have prioritized ag tech.
I often hear, ‘You’ll never get into farming – they’re just doing the same thing as their grandfather.’ But I didn’t see that at all.– Jason McNamee, Lucent Biosciences
Jason McNamee felt the ecosystem’s embrace when he and his Vancouver-based team at Lucent Biosciences pitched their idea for Soileos at a Saskatchewan tech startup competition in 2019. It’s a plant-based fertilizer that advertises benefits like improved yields, costs and environmental Sustainability. .
Although they didn’t win the competition, they caught the attention of the CEO of AGT Foods.
“Mourad al-Khatib came to me right after the pitch and said: Are you saying what I think you are saying?” And he gave me his card,” McNamee recalls.
Months later, AGT and Lucent partnered with a consortium of other companies to secure a grant from Protein Industries Canada for $19 million.
Lucent is currently finishing development of its new manufacturing facility in Rosetown, Sask., which will employ approximately 20 people and have capacity to produce about 7,000 tons of product per year – to begin with. They expect Soileos to be available to Saskatchewan farmers by next spring.
“The ag tech community in Saskatchewan is extremely strong,” says McNamee. “I often hear, ‘You’ll never get into farming – they’re just doing the same thing as their grandfather.’ But I just didn’t see it at all.”
There’s still a long way to go for Saskatchewan’s tech industry to really take off, and some major challenges ahead.
First, more investment is needed, O’Connor says, as demonstrated by the fact that there was $182 million of venture capital deployed in Canadian ag tech last year, compared to $4.9 billion in the United States.
One of the challenges of procurement investments in this sector is that it is a less understood industry, says O’Connor, and the technology requires more time to be developed and adopted, meaning it takes more time for investors to see returns.
Finally, small businesses here struggle to hire local staff, especially in software development, Wilness says.
“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges: trying to compete with everyone else to find tech talent. It’s such a hot sector.”
Still, the fact that Saskatchewan is already seeing this degree of ag tech development and investment is a good news story for Western Canada, says O’Connor.
“Sometimes it doesn’t belong in the big centers. Instead of fighting over the crumbs, we can get our own slice of the bread.”