Manitoba farm paves way for AI in agriculture

A farm near Grosse Isle, Man., is planting a seed in producers’ minds: integrate AI and machine learning models into their farming.

“Innovation Farms is a central hub based on a seed farm, which really allows innovators, industry leaders and academics to have access to technology, production practices and leading-edge equipment,” said Innovation Farms manager Leanne Koroscil.

Innovation Farms is run by EMILI – a non-profit that focuses on advancing agriculture with digital tools. It operates within a 5,500-acre seed farm, and serves as a technology and technique tester.

“Being able to look at these technologies and really demonstrate the ROI – the return on investment that farmers can get out of it – is a huge benefit to the industry and something that is pretty rare out there across Canada,” Koroscil said.

The use of technology on farms is quickly growing. As AI and machine learning models become more mainstream, farmers have the chance to care for their crops like never before.

“Sometimes it rains in one field on one side of the road, and it doesn’t … on another field on the other side of the road,” she said. “So being able to check that and track that from your phone in your hand or your computer at your desk is something that was never really possible.”

However, Innovation Farms recognizes farmers could be hesitant about using hi-tech tools, which is something partnering professors like Christopher Henry hope to address.

“We want to make sure they know that we’re not introducing, for example, Terminators into the field to grow their food,” said Henry, an associate professor in computer science at the University of Manitoba.

Instead, Henry said the technology can also help with labour shortages by shifting people to problem-solving roles and making the robots do the dirty work.

“Tasks that people don’t want to do in general or that they’re just not feasible,” he said.

Henry has been working with Innovation Farms on a variety of projects for five years. By extracting data from the fields, he and his team help develop AI and machine learning models to expedite fieldwork, like getting rid of weeds in organic farming.

“A lot of tasks that need to be solved in any domain, but especially in agriculture, are really complex,” Henry said. “And so by utilizing these algorithms, we can do things with automated systems that we previously weren’t able to do.”

While not everything on the farm is completely hands-free yet, Koroscil said she has big hopes for the future.

“There are so many exciting technologies coming down the pipeline and this is truly just the base, the beginning of it all,” she said.

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