It’s still early days for smart farming technology, but a Southwestern Ontario firm is out in the fields, proving the feasibility and value of robotics and automation
CANADA IS IN the midst of a fourth agricultural revolution, where advanced technology and automation are converging into a blossoming Internet of Farming — a potential revolution in the way Canadian farmers grow food and feed growing populations.
But this revolution is by no means assured. By 2025, one of every four farmers in this country will be over the age of 65, and farm productivity is plateauing. There’s also a labour shortage of over 120,000 workers in Canada’s agricultural sectors, with no sign of letting up.
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Change is needed to attract new people to the field. “It’s more than an economic imperative,” concluded a recent RBC study of the ag industry. “Our food security is at stake.”
Haggarty AgRobotics, based in the town of Bothwell southwest of London, wants to see that agricultural revolution coming to life here, in Southwestern Ontario, on some of the most fertile farmland this country has to offer.
“When people used to farm 50 years ago, you would go into the field with your tractors and everything was manual. The way you drove was manual. The way you planted was manual. You had no information about the field,” says Chuck Baresich, co-founder of Haggerty AgRobotics and Haggerty Creek, the parent agricultural company from which their new robotics company is being spun off.
“The next step is to remove the person out of the cab of the tractor,” Baresich continues. “What we did — or, what we’re doing — is we have brought together various pieces of autonomous equipment, and we have worked out a system to deploy those pieces of equipment on farmers’ fields.”
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In recent years, Haggarty Creek has explored the business of precision agriculture, Baresich says, using technology like GPS and field computers to gather more precise data to help farmers do their work.
Farmers today are often working with smart tools — fertilizers that know not to over-spray a spot, for instance. As those tools have become commonplace in the farming industry, the logical next step for Baresich was automation. “We had started down this road in 2020 and did a lot of experimenting with it in 2021,” he says. “But now what we’re doing is saying, ‘We’re going to focus on this.’”
They now have a fleet of 11 different types of robots to automate a variety of simple farm tasks. “Some of the robots are small — the size of a wheelbarrow — and they drive through the field,” Baresich explains. “The other robots are bigger — the size of a car — and they do the same thing.”
One of those car-sized robots, for instance, can drive through the field planting a crop, and then can turn around and weed the field around the crop without harming what it just planted.
“Tedious tasks,” he notes. “That’s what most people are asking for.”
This year, their entire fleet of robots is being deployed, and they are using them in a kind of pilot capacity, studying how they work when implemented in the real world. What they’ve found, he says, is that the robots are a big hit on small, family-run farms, rather than big industrial operations where the automation imperative often seems the strongest.
The robots, he says, “become like a third hand to a small farm like that, and those farms are really struggling for labour,” he says. “I think the market garden type farms, where people are growing a variety of berries and fruits — I think we’re going to see adoption on those very quickly.”
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Baresich is aware that they won’t get there overnight. The internet infrastructure is still lacking in many rural areas, and connection latency continues to be a problem for the industry to solve. Overcoming these challenges, he says, could have a huge upside for Southwestern Ontario. To that end, he has helped convene a working group, with the support of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, to help guide how this industry develops both in Ontario and across the country. He’s happy also to see growth in the advanced manufacturing sector in the region.
“The two- to three-year plan [for Haggarty AgRobotics] is to expand the number of robots, so they’re more commonplace for people to see them,” Baresich says. “The five-year plan is to use what we’re learning [now] to help establish an innovation hub here in Southwestern Ontario, where research, production and manufacturing of these robots is happening here. We see no reason why that shouldn’t happen here.” Kieran Delamont