MITACS CASE STUDY: What does satellite data have to do with farming, food security, and soil fertility? This Alberta company’s AI holds the answers.

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MITACS CASE STUDY: What does satellite data have to do with farming, food security, and soil fertility? This Alberta company’s AI holds the answers.

Introduction: Mitacs is an ecosystem partner of Digital Alberta. Digital Alberta will be featuring a series of MITACS’ case studies throughout the year. Stay tuned! How? Become a Digital Alberta Insider by signing up for updates! 

Farming, as thousands of Albertans in the industry will tell you, can feel like a calling. It is a passion, a purpose, and a great responsibility rolled all into one, often passed down through family lines.

It takes a special kind of dedication to the labour of planting, harvesting, and processing crops, season after season, to provide nourishment for others.

Farmers are the very definition of hardworking.

Today, though, they are facing challenges that generations before them never imagined or encountered. Soaring inflation rates, sky-high demand, an intensely competitive labour market, and unprecedented weather trends, all at once.

Margins are tighter, conditions are unpredictable, food insecurity is on the rise, and the people growing our food have to work even harder.

Many farms are fighting to keep up, and most cannot afford to fall behind.

One solution? Crack the code on soil fertility.

For centuries, growers have relied on traditional methods, tried-and-true wisdom, and expert instincts to optimize soil fertility in their fields, along with all other aspects of the business. Over the last few decades, however, the industry has begun to harness the power of digital tools to create a breakthrough approach to farm management.

Precision agriculture uses technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and software development to improve productivity, efficiency, and sustainability across farming operations. And, thankfully, a small group of people quickly started thinking about how to apply the principles of precision agriculture to the problem of soil fertility maintenance and monitoring.

Enter Decisive Farming by TELUS Agriculture.

The startup-turned-TELUS subsidiary is on a mission to help farmers streamline their operations so they can better navigate the mounting global pressures squeezing in from all sides – economic and environmental alike.

“We thought, what can we do, as a technology-led business, to help farmers optimize their workflow?” says Vincent Pang, Product Manager at Decisive Farming. “How can we help push precision agriculture forward to meet the needs of growers?”

The stakes are surprisingly high: accurate fertility mapping can help farmers manage their operating costs, minimize their environmental impact, mitigate the risk of crop failure, right-size their teams, and reinforce food security in their communities and beyond.

Decisive Farming can optimize production for improved efficiency, profitability, and sustainability while enabling data-driven decision-making, and helping to de-risk the complex business of food production.

But building out a whole new branch of precision agriculture requires an immense amount of time and effort, advanced agricultural knowledge, expertise in artificial intelligence, and deep computer science skills.

So how did the Decisive Farming team find the right talent to get the job done?

They turned to Mitacs.

Mitacs is a not-for-profit that brings innovation within reach for Alberta companies by helping to fill the skilled-talent gap. Its programs provide a bridge between the private and post-secondary sectors, allowing companies to access academic experts and up-and-coming talent that can help them innovate, boost productivity, and grow.

Using a unique and proven paid internship model, Mitacs matches organizations in need of specific knowledge and skills with highly qualified post-secondary students – and provides funding to cover half the salary costs.

Decisive Farming first engaged a small cohort of advanced computer science interns, under the guidance of University of Calgary computer science professor and graphics, interaction, and visualization lab lead Faramarz Samavati, to create a prototype for the new digital fertility mapping tool. Then, once the program’s initial wireframe was in place, the company brought on a second, much larger, cluster of interns to build out the applications of the tech over a three-year period.

“They are experts in their field,” says Pang of the Mitacs interns. “They’re highly trained in data analysis, data visualization and     workflow design. And they’re now gaining the experience to apply that knowledge to solve problems in the essential agri-food sector.”

The software uses AI and machine learning to perform some impressive – and, for farmers, invaluable – functions. It has the capability to read satellite, radar, thermal, and infrared images; analyze their data; and extract insights.

It can recognize patterns in the data and quickly determine the recommended course of action; a consistently productive field likely doesn’t require fertilizer application this season, whereas a zone that’s been struggling may warrant investigatory soil testing. It can also predict future output and raw materials requirements; based on the data, what next year’s crop would look like or how much nitrogen might be needed.

The program has the potential to bring a whole new level of strategy to farming operations. Crops can be planted in zones where the conditions are best for them, and chemical fertilizers can be used in a highly targeted way.

From detecting crop types and recommending nutrient testing locations, to establishing a field’s productivity baseline, identifying outlier years, and estimating yield, this tool is giving farmers access to invaluable data. Pair this with growers’ years of experience and expertise, and Decisive Farming, with the help of Mitacs, is enabling better and faster decision-making – and saving money and time – on the farm.

“Without these researchers, without the dedicated time and specialized skill they bring to this project, we would not be making progress at the rate we are,” says Pang. “It would have taken our full-time team longer, amidst very busy days and countless other initiatives, to get us to where we are today.”

Together, the company and its interns are contributing to the sustainability of locally owned and operated agri-businesses, to bolstering food security and affordability for Albertans, and to maintaining a healthy growing environment for generations to come.

To learn more about how Mitacs can support your business, or to kick-start your talent / funding application, connect with a local innovation expert at Mitacs.