Dr. Joy Agnew, Olds College of Agriculture & Technology’s Associate Vice-President of Research, seems to be a long way from her family farm in rural Saskatchewan. But is she really? Her father was a big believer in early adoption of technology, and would take her with him to agricultural shows around the Prairies. He was constantly educating himself, to which she attributes her love of learning. That thirst for knowledge propelled her to earn a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, both in Agricultural Engineering, from the University of Saskatchewan, as well as an MSc focused on composting science from the University of Alberta. While finishing her PhD, she did some teaching, which opened her eyes to the enjoyment of sharing knowledge with students and opening their minds to new possibilities and opportunities. Nevertheless, she realized that her primary passion remained applied research, and her subsequent career choices reflect that focus, particularly her current role, which has her leading three CAAIN-supported projects, including The Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network Development initiative.
“What I love about what I’m doing now,” she explains, “Is that I get the best of both worlds. Not only do we have about 60 projects wrapped up in the smart farm envelope, but I also work hands-on with fantastic researchers, teachers, and students. I’m engaged in research while supporting the teaching and training of the next generation. This is my dream job.”
Joy is rightfully proud of the progress her team is making. First, there’s the growth of the Smart Farm Network itself, which started with three sites, namely Olds, Lakeland College, and the Glacier Farm Media Discovery Farm in Langham, SK. Since then, the partnership has grown to include the University of Saskatchewan and Manitoba Beef & Forage Initiatives. Second, there is the diversity of research in which the five partners are engaged. Some of the projects are stand-alone, others involve multi-site collaboration, but all are focused on improving Canadian agricultural practices and performance.
When asked to single out a couple of her favourites, she pauses to consider her answer carefully. “That’s a tough question,” she says. “There are so many from which to choose and they’re all good, but I am very proud of the projects that the Smart Farm Network team has collaboratively developed and executed. For example, this year we hope to collectively evaluate a new Australian technology that assesses disease risk. That’s exciting because we will all be evaluating the same tool, so our combined efforts will yield data relevant across Western Canada. It will also allow the tech manufacturer access to a new market, which in turn grows the credibility and brand value of the Smart Farm Network. Another of our multi-site projects has us determining the ideal field placement of METOS weather stations. That may sound trivial but it’s important because if we can figure out optimal locations relative to wind direction and other factors, we can provide guidance that allows farmers to collect the best information possible on which to base their decisions. We are also exploring an initiative that would greatly benefit from the ability to collect data from multiple sites. Specifically, we hope to validate a model that can estimate nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from fields using data that growers can already access through their existing equipment. The Government of Canada is seeking to reduce greenhouse gases generated by agricultural activity. But it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to directly measure the N2O released by fertilizer use. We are intent on finding a way to calculate the emissions with some degree of accuracy according to specific criteria. If we succeed, the result will be very useful as we strive to quantify and reduce the cropping sector’s carbon footprint.”
Another important benefit the Olds College smart farm provides is the hands-on learning available to students. Every year one or two are offered an on-site work placement focused on using the facility’s autonomous vehicle technology. As a result, they become experts with this advanced equipment. Furthermore, all the school’s Agriculture and Agronomy students are exposed to activities that build their understanding of, and comfort with, the latest AgTech. That provides them a significant advantage when they graduate. In fact, this kind of education is good for the entire agri-food industry because the agronomists and farm operators who have enjoyed this kind of practical training are the leaders who will help propel Canadian agriculture to the levels of efficiency required to feed a growing global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.
Joy is adamant that CAAIN’s support of the Smart Farm Network has been essential to its growth and success. The combined land capacity among the five partners is approximately 10,000 acres, 3,600 of which are owned and operated by Olds College. While this bounty gives the teams the space needed to run multiple projects in individual locations, it’s the funding that makes the variety and the project activities possible. Without it, they would lack the resources needed to engage in such diverse research, networking, and dissemination. Joy notes that in addition to the massive contribution from CAAIN, several other partners have been instrumental to the success of the Smart Farm Network. In particular, she points to the value added by ATB, UFA, MNP, Glacier Farm Media, and METOS Canada, as well as other public-sector funding from PrairiesCan, NSERC, and Alberta Innovates.
When asked what it is about the Smart Farm Network that gives her the most pride, Dr. Agnew smiles. “This may seem strange, but it’s the capacity we’re building. This complex, painstaking work requires significant and diverse expertise. Through our efforts and those of our partners we are building the skills and knowledge needed to execute projects that will accelerate the development and adoption of valuable technologies.” She pauses. “This is not easy. It’s hard to organize and manage diverse activities across a range of sites while ensuring a high level of attention to detail and scientific rigour. But we have individually and collectively completed several dozen projects, and the results have been gratifying. We’re learning as we go and are only going to improve as we gain experience and continue building that capacity I mentioned. That makes me proud because I know that by developing the expertise needed to conduct our experiments and validate new technologies, we’re directly supporting the Canadian agricultural sector that has been my entire life and that I love so passionately.”
It seems Dr. Joy Agnew has not travelled all that far from the family farm after all.
Total Project Value
Joy Agnew, PhD
Associate Vice-President, Research