Farming tractor

Farming tractor spraying a field

While there are definitely some challenges, Dr John Schueller believes eastern Canada, and PEI in particular, has the potential to lead when it comes to precision agriculture.

A professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida, Dr Schueller was the keynote speaker at the 2019 regional precision agriculture conference held recently at the UPEI Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering.

He said a practical definition of precision agriculture is simply the use of advanced technology in crop production.

Dr Schueller said the biggest challenge facing eastern Canadian farmers is the relatively small size of the industry on a world scale. To counter that impact, he recommends close integration with suppliers of precision agriculture technology and a willingness to adapt technology used in other areas to the situation in the region.

"It is possible to be economically successful on a smaller scale but it requires being outward looking," he said.

The region has high labour costs and environmental concerns. Due to its relatively small size, it is also influenced by factors largely out of its control like trade disputes.

Dr Schueller urged the industry to not to be afraid to adapt to changing technology.

"Precision agriculture is not technology," he said. "It is attempting to understand the variabilities that occur."

The most important variable, as many Island growers know, is water. He also noted the first thought that may come to mind in how to improve crop production may not always be the best course of action.

For example, the first reaction is usually to apply more inputs to an area of a farm with low yields. However, he said if the soil is poor, "more fertilizer may have little impact, instead the best thing would be to apply fertilizer in high yielding areas of the field to increase production."

New developments must be reliable and easy to use, Dr Schueller said. Digital technology now means it is possible for a dairy farm to have a computer model of every cow. The technology is in place to forecast yields using infrared technology.

Dr Schueller explained there are essentially two types of technology when it comes to agriculture: equipment systems that become universally adapted like the tractor and ‘drop-in’ technology that can become significant in parts of the industry.

It is not enough to perfect the technology, he said, it must be easily integrated and have proven economic value if it is to become widely used in the industry.

Dr Schueller noted agriculture technology stands a better chance of being adapted if there is parallel work in other sectors of society.

"You may be hearing a lot about self-driving cars but the biggest manufacturer of self-driving technology right now is John Deere," he said.

Much of Canada and northern US have a short window of harvest due to weather and precision technology must provide fast and predictable results.

He noted "an interconnected system must provide accurate and actionable knowledge to the end user, not just data.

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