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The Canadian Prairies: A hub of digital agriculture innovation

17 Jul 2023 3:54 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

With 47 sensors including weather stations, soil sensors, crop cameras, and insect monitoring stations across Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert, EMILI and its partners are able to provide vital insights to increase sustainability and on-farm productivity. Photo courtesy of EMILI.

When people think about science and technology, many don’t think about the cereal they are eating for breakfast or the canola oil that is a staple in their cupboard. Yet, science and technology is a driving force behind the sustainability of our food systems.

This is something that EMILI, a Manitoba-based non-profit committed to growing a sustainable and economically resilient digital agriculture industry, sees first-hand every day. 

Take a short twenty minute drive northwest of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and you'll find EMILI's Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert. At first glance, it looks like an unassuming plot of land similar to thousands of family farms that dot the prairies. However, it is the largest broad-acre smart farm in Canada, with 5,500 fully-sensored acres. The farm works with innovators across industry and academia to develop deep viable solutions to the diverse agronomic and technological constraints and opportunities farmers face, such as irregular weather due to climate change and limited broadband in rural areas.

This space is unique in Canada in that it operates on a commercial farm to demonstrate the productivity and sustainability of commercialized technologies, test and validate new technologies to bring them from pre-commercial to market, and increase understanding of and access to digital agriculture tools. 

N49 Genetics, a Manitoba-based plant breeding company, is working with EMILI on Innovation Farms to develop precision planting equipment to improve the resilience and yield of Manitoba-grown crops. The precision planter will enable them to identify and advance soybean lines with early season vigor and improved stress tolerance traits for select growing regions of Manitoba. 

It is also designed to maintain the depth control, row spacing and singulation capabilities of a commercial vacuum planter while handling as few as 50-100 seeds, and further evaluating the growth and performance of individual seedlings using image-based techniques.

Combining specialized planting equipment with digital image analysis, EMILI and N49 Genetics are working toward developing soybean varieties with improved stress tolerance for Western Canada’s unique environment. Photo by Kevin Baron.

“We are proud to work with companies like N49 Genetics to test and validate new technologies to ensure they work in a prairie context,” said EMILI Managing Director Jacqueline Keena. “This is foundational work that will increase the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the prairies.” 

Empowering small to medium-sized enterprises such as N49 is an important way EMILI advances digital agriculture and strengthens our economy. 

“The projects we are undertaking represent a big investment in the future of digital agriculture in Canada to expand technology and education initiatives across the agri-food industry,” said Keena. “This will accelerate innovative technologies and provide people with the skills and training required for a sustainable and economically resilient digital agriculture industry for generations to come.”

In addition to working with EMILI on Innovation Farms, N49 Genetics received support from EMILI’s Emergence Grant. Over the past two years, EMILI has funded over $220,000 to increase the scale of digital agriculture innovation in Manitoba and across the prairies. 

“These early-stage organizations, many of them women-led, share a passion for innovation and a desire to increase the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the prairies,” said Keena. 

The Emergence Grant allows entrepreneurs who are still in the early stages of developing their business to acquire the resources they need to increase productivity and bring their idea to a larger market. With labour shortages, supply chain issues, weather patterns and war impacting food supplies, investing in early-stage Canadian ag-tech startups is a vital way to accelerate Canada’s growth as a leader in digital agriculture. 

Cody Ray and Holly Anderson, founders of NeoNutes Market, a vertical urban garden in Brandon, Manitoba that specializes in microgreens and aquaponics, said that without the support of EMILI’s Emergence Grant, they might have missed the opportunity to partner with Futurpreneur to purchase the modular grow pod and related technologies needed to provide year-round lettuce to their micro-green customers.

Ray and Anderson hope that as their business expands, they will be able to acquire more grow pods and the chance to develop a pilot program to provide fresh greens in Northern Indigenous communities. For now, they are excited for the opportunity to acquire the agricultural technology they need to provide food outlets and foodies with a steady supply of nutrient-rich leafy greens, as well as the chance to connect practicum students from Assiniboine Community College with urban farming.

Ray points to weather events such as the 2020 fires in California that impacted lettuce supplies across the US and Canada when saying that thinking of his children’s future motivates him to innovate. 

“If there is one thing that inspired me the most it is an Indigenous elder that said we do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we are simply borrowing it from our children,” he said.

This post is sponsored by EMILI Canada.


  • 16 Sep 2023 4:59 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    **This comment has been posted by the GM on behalf of long-time member, Larry Powell.**

    I’m writing to express my concern about a recent story now posted on our blog site. Entitled, “The Canadian Prairies: A hub of digital agriculture innovation,” it appears not to have been written by a SWCC member at all, but by a corporation! EMILI - short for “Enterprise Machine Intelligence Learning Initiative,” is based in Manitoba. It says it “supports projects that advance innovative technologies and increase skills and training opportunities in the (farm) sector.”

    Just as disturbingly, this article is described as being “sponsored.” If any of you are familiar with the pitfalls of “advertorials,” (paid ads that appear to inject a dash of journalistic integrity into what is mostly corporate spin), you’ll know we need to be wary. Such deceptive vehicles (available only to those with deep pockets) have been a familiar feature in our mainstream media for some time now (think Manitoba Pork).

    It appears pretty much a “given” that artificial intelligence (AI) plays a role in EMILI’s operations, perhaps a major one, too. A link on its site leads us to an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, written by its Managing-Director, Jacqueline Keena. It appears to defend AI against warnings by experts that it’s an “existential threat.”

    “While in some ways warranted,” the article reads, “these concerns must be balanced by recognizing the role AI and related technologies can play in achieving sustainability in the face of climate change.”

    Excuse me, but we don’t need AI to save us from the ravages of “global boiling” as it’s now being called. Good, old-fashioned “non-artificial intelligence” (NAI) already informed us generations ago about the ways industrial agriculture (aka “chemical farming”) has been contributing to that problem. All we have to do is - do something about it! But, because we are so married to it, we have not.

    “Petro-powered,” “dinosaur-heavy” farm machines that too often pulverize the soil, along with prodigious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and liquid hog manure applied to vast farm fields, “liberate” all three of the main greenhouse gases into the air.

    And we don’t need AI to tell us how to achieve “sustainability,” either. Harsh agri-chemicals harm the health of humans, animals, birds and pollinators. We already know this. Finding other ways to control insects, disease and weeds is surely the way out.

    My guess is, this company is more dedicated to using AI to find excuses to cling to the old ways, rather than finding radical, but necessary new ones.

    And we all need to recognize that that word “sustainabile” (the most bastardized in the English language) - if not uttered by an environmentalist - always means - sustaining industry - not our natural world or our climate. Always.

    We may never totally transition to organic or regenerative farms. But no amount of “smart” sensors or armadas of drones flying over our fields - while clinging to our fundamentally-flawed system of industrial food production - will get us where we need to be.

    Larry Powell,
    A proud SWCC member.


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