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Editorial: Will agriculture seize the moment?

There’s growing interest from outside the traditional agriculture world in what’s happening on the farm and the arrival of new ideas and people will change the sector in ways we can’t yet predict.

I continue to hear stories from people about academics with no connection to agriculture becoming involved in agriculture research. Consultants say they have never seen so many enquiries from companies looking to understand whether there’s a play for them in the sector.

I first had an ‘aha’ moment about this when I spoke at the 2019 Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show about farmers and barriers to technology.

The session attracted people who were kicking tires on the agriculture sector — technology companies, software companies, insurers and those with equipment they thought could be used in agriculture but weren’t sure.

They were open and genuinely curious. But a visit to the farm show, for them, was evidence that the agriculture sector is a whole new world.

Some will take a pass. But there’s been legitimate buzz around agriculture in the technology and venture capital community over the past five years.

The agriculture community’s been shouting from the rooftops to attract capital and new technology for a while now. But it took reports like the Barton Report in 2017 to bring some serious light, backed by serious money and players. 

The Barton Report is a federal government document that picked the leading sectors of the economy with potential to lead the country. It was refreshing to see agriculture on that list. It was legitimately there but refreshing still to get some recognition. The report also mostly got the needs and potential of the sector right.

I’ve wondered recently if we’ve written too much about the Barton Report and given it too much credence. Government reports usually try to please too many people or are imbued by the most recent policy fads or ideology. 

The Barton Report was accurate and forward-thinking. It resulted in the superclusters policy, of which agriculture was one (although eastern Canada has had only token mention in the big Protein Industries Canada strategy and bucket of money).

I’ve also wondered if it was time to move on from the four-year-old Barton Report, but I also think a good portion of this slow evolution of interest has had its genesis in that report.

I recently listened to a Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute webinar that included five deputy ministers from across the federal government, not just the agriculture silo. They all had a significant understanding of the issues in agriculture. That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.

What will it mean for new companies and new people from new parts of the world to come into the agriculture sector?

Agriculture is a big diverse industry, which is one of the things I love about it, but it has also been closed to new ideas. The sector has been a quiet secret, mostly existing outside cities. With new attention will come new ideas and new challenges of the status quo.

That’s a necessary step into the future for the sector as it wrestles with numerous challenges including land cost, input cost, access to capital and the need to scale in some areas to compete globally. 

Managing the adoption of the many new technology options will also be a challenge requiring new people and new ideas.

Agriculture has for years been jumping up and down behind the taller kids, saying “pick me, pick me!” Now that the world, and especially the Canadian public and business, has said, ‘OK, it’s your turn,’ how will agriculture seize the moment? Will it turn inward, daunted by the spotlight, or seize the moment?

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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