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Olds College brings the future to the farm

Picture of the Olds College Smart Farm sign in front of a field.

“If you're going to fail, fail fast,” is a common mantra in entrepreneurship, but taking risks and making mistakes will cost you big in the agriculture industry.

“When you’re a producer, you can’t afford to fail a quarter section at a time or ten thousand acres at a time,” said Jason Bradley, the Director, Smart Ag, at Olds College in Alberta.

So how, then, do farmers and producers adopt new processes, learn new technologies, and move their businesses forward when the cost of failure is so high?

That’s where the Olds College Smart Farm comes in—at least in part.

“The Olds College Smart Farm is a living lab,” Jason explained. “It’s meant to be a place for us to demonstrate technology for our industry partners. It’s meant to be a place for our students to apply learning from the classroom and do projects and hands-on learning, and it’s meant as a place to do applied research.”

Hands-on learning

Ever since it first opened its doors in 1930, Olds College has had a demonstration farm. Providing students with hands-on learning opportunities has always been one of the College’s top values.

“We realized that as agriculture is changing and evolving in terms of technology, that we needed to do the same with the farm,” Jason said.

Working together with industry partners, the Smart Farm began on a 110-acre field on College property. The project began with the installation of various soil-sensing technologies that collect data around moisture, nutrient levels, fertility and more.

“The data that's acquired through these operations provides information for farmers to make decisions on for next year's planning,” Jason explained.

At the College, students in related programs are able to examine this data, the field it came from, and tie it all together.

“It's about instructors and students coming in here and using our farm for real life [scenarios] in class,” Jason said.

There are other “smart” things being tested at Olds College as well: feed and water stations that weigh the cattle that eat there, for example, and virtual fencing that can control and change where a herd grazes.

And the College is just one year into the project.

“We are an educational institution here and we will continue to learn with the industry,” Jason said. “If there's something that's coming down the pipeline that farmers have heard of and they want to talk about it with us, we want to be able to test it and try it out. We want to tell the story of our learning curve and we're prepared that there will be some successes and there will probably be some stuff that doesn't work out quite as planned.”

Building the workforce of the future

Nikki Olson is the Smart Ag research project manager at the College. She graduated from Olds in 2013.

“From the time I graduated to where we are now six years later, the ag industry has seen vast changes in terms of technology, data management and decision capabilities, and that plays a huge role in education,” she said.

Those changes have led in turn to changes in the demographic makeup of the students at the College, said Jason.

“It starts to provide opportunities for different people to enter into agriculture,” he explained. “We're not only expecting many of those students to come from an already rural setting, there [are also] students that are interested in programming, in developing and designing and engineering, that we can attract into the agriculture industry and allow them to use their talents in a way that they might not have considered that as an option in the past.”

“Industry has told us that they're looking for our students to graduate with the ability to integrate agronomy, from a production point of view, and technology,” Jason added. “So the students are realizing that that's what they're interested in.”

Support for the Smart Farm

ATB has committed $250,000 to support agriculture technology research and education at Olds College. The five-year financial commitment will be used to grow the College’s high-tech smart farm, and sponsor AgSmart, a two-day ag technology expo taking place August 13 and 14 at the College.

“At ATB, we understand agriculture is as important to our future as it was to our past,” said ATB’s President and CEO, Curtis Stange.

“We know the industry is rapidly changing with technology playing a growing role and we are proud to support initiatives like the Olds College Smart Farm that harness technology and innovation in such an integral sector. This will further position Alberta and its producers as leaders and keep them competitive while producing world-class products.”​​​​

Visit the Olds College Smart Farm website for more information.
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