By Donna Fleury
Agriculture poses unique challenges to development and adoption of agri-innovation.
The complexity of the agriculture industry and growing operational challenges across sectors are pressuring farmers to find new ways to improve competitiveness. The adoption of new technology and innovations, such as automation and robotics may be one opportunity, but many factors influence the competitiveness of production systems.
Researchers at Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) have set out to find out more about the opportunities and challenges associated with building competitive production systems, focusing on the issues farmers face particularly in the adoption of automation and robotics technology. “Understanding the barriers and drivers of adoption for the agriculture industry is important for widespread investment and adoption of automation and robotics technologies,” explains Amy Lemay, NCO research fellow and adjunct professor in the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University. “In this four-phase project, we are focused on all commodities in primary production in Ontario’s agriculture sector. With funding through Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Canadian Agricultural Partnership, we want to determine how to inform future policy around technology adoption and the barriers and drivers to adoption.”
An online survey was distributed across Ontario between November 2020 and February 2021 in the first phase of the project. “In the survey, we were trying to get a snapshot of what automation and robotics technologies have been adopted by farmers, and in general what their experiences were with adopting the technology, including challenges and barriers,” Lemay says. “Recognizing that technology adoption is . . . a process and a journey, we designed the survey for both farmers who have already adopted technology and those that have not. We followed the survey with semi-structured interviews with 38 stakeholders located in the Niagara Region in July 2021 in phase two of the project. We interviewed farmers, automation and robotics researchers, technology solution developers and providers and intermediaries including extension specialists, commodity organizations and other agriculture stakeholders to find out their experiences or perceptions of technology adoption.”
The initial survey results from 171 Ontario respondents indicated that the overall level of adoption of automation and robotics technology was 39 per cent. This level of adoption is similar to that of other Canadian sectors recently surveyed including Canadian manufacturers. Livestock producers were more likely to have adopted robotics and automation technology, with the highest adoption rate of 73 per cent by dairy farmers. The top three reasons farmers adopted robotics and automation technology were increased productivity, increased production efficiency, and reduced costs. The top three reasons given for not adopting technology were the high costs of acquisition, lack of relevant technology, and insufficient return on investment.
“One of the important findings is the complex and nuanced set of underlying strategic calculations that inform farmers’ choices about the value of adopting automation and robotics technology,” Lemay explains. “These findings challenge the broad stereotypes about farmers being ‘slow adopters’. The analysis shows that farm competitiveness is not dependent on technology adoption such as automation and robotics alone, and for some operations adoption could actually reduce the competitiveness of the farm. There is a need to recognize that the benefits don’t necessarily apply to all farms, because farms are highly diverse, tend to operate in less controllable environments, frequently at the mercy of climatic and biological forces beyond their control. That some farmers choose not to adopt automation and robotic technologies should not be used as an indicator of their competitiveness. Both the survey and interviews demonstrate that farmers are very open to adopting innovations that make sense for their operations and are a viable business decision, just not necessarily automation and robotics.”
A key decision factor for farmers is the importance of local, reliable access to service, parts and maintenance over the long term. Overwhelmingly, 80 per cent of adopters purchased the technology “off the shelf,” while about 18 per cent said the technology was both purchased and developed in-house. In addition, almost 70 per cent of adopters purchased off the shelf technology within 100 kilometres of the farm. This factor strongly suggests that producers are acquiring proven technology that has been fully commercialized, scaled and is readily available through their local retail market. The most important criteria for technology selection was performance, followed by ease of use and lastly cost. Several interviewees pointed out that many automation and robotics technologies had yet to tangibly demonstrate promised benefits.
“A recurring theme from farmers is that a lot of technology being developed is just not ready for on the ground adoption. However, the stakeholder interviews also highlighted the perception of tech developers and providers that farmers are risk averse or non-innovative, which I found quite surprising,” Lemay notes. “This perception came through very strongly, however this is not the case as farmers wouldn’t be farmers if they weren’t risk takers. The tech developers seem to expect that farmers should accept and adopt unvalidated technology, even if it’s going to require significant adaptation of their production system. I think tech developers have a tendency to fail to understand the realities of farming and the fact that farmers typically have one chance a year to produce their crops and generate their livelihood. Tech developers are encouraged to engage with the farm community, whether that is through commodity organizations or individual farmers, to ensure what is being developed is suitable or will fit within a production system and make sure it solves a real problem on the farm.”
Farmers are also concerned about new robotics and automation technology coming from outside of Canada, which will require performance testing and validation within the commodity and production system in the region where it is being adopted. Even in cases where there is a local supplier, farmers still face delays in obtaining parts or access to technical support and maintenance for imported equipment. A lot of new technology is coming from startups, which may not be around long-term to provide parts, support and maintenance. Given Canada’s small market, perhaps support for validation, adaptation and ground-truthing of imported technologies, and building local technical capacity, would be an effective approach for supporting adoption.
In all phases of this project so far, there is a recurring pattern of issues for farmers, and Lemay notes these themes are across the board. A lot of technology sensors, automation and robotics technology generate massive volumes of data that are often on different platforms that are not compatible or harmonized. This lack of interoperability between different technology platforms makes it almost impossible to aggregate and compare the data.
Another key issue is understanding and analyzing all of this data, which developers suggest will help make better production decisions and improve productivity. However, it can be quite difficult to understand what the data is actually saying, let alone generate production decisions. Some farmers are resorting to hiring data specialists to help them analyze and try to utilize the data in their operations. Other issues related to data that were raised during the interviews include privacy, security and ownership.
“Overall, I think the information from all of the phases highlights a misalignment between expectations of agri-innovation adoption and the unique challenges agriculture poses to development and adoption,” Lemay emphasizes, adding the idea that demonstration farms and test sites could play a strong role in addressing this challenge. “We are finding that the expectations of how long it takes to adopt and implement new technology may not be realistic, which we think may contribute to the perception that farmers are slow adopters and risk averse . . . which may be a significant barrier to adoption.
“While not all farmers are adopting and using automation and robotics, many of them are doing other very innovative things and are adopting innovations that are viable for their operation. Therefore, another recommendation may be to find strategies to support development and adoption of innovation more generically to allow all farmers to choose the innovations that make the most sense for their farms.”
Lemay and her team are now working on the analysis from all phases of the project, and expect to have a final report available early in the new year. This includes a series of interviews with tech developers and providers who had partnered with the federal Global Innovation Clusters including Protein Industries Canada, Digital Technology, NGen Advanced Manufacturing and Scale AI. Interviews in this phase were conducted with 25 participants to provide a more national perspective on new robotics and automation technology.
The final report will provide outcomes and policy recommendations to inform future policy around the barriers and drivers to adoption of robotics and automation and building competitive production systems.