CAN: Agri-tech pushes growers beyond ‘spray-and-pray’ farming

With wildfires and a heat dome battering B.C. for much of the summer, Michael Gilbert spent time with investors discussing the potential for big data to help farmers get ahead of bad conditions for growing crops.

The summer eventually concluded with downpours on the West Coast and investor capital of $100 million gushing in for Vancouver’s SemiosBio Technologies Inc. late last month.

“What we’ve learned through this pandemic is that we’re already maxed out, and we really cannot afford for our food system to fail for a whole season - that’s just not on the table anymore,” said Semios CEO and founder Gilbert, whose company is best known for using sensors and data to ensure healthy crops for farmers by monitoring for harmful weather and pests. The B.C. firm has about two million sensors deployed around the globe to monitor the health of crops.

Last month, CubicFarms Systems received an order from a private investor group for an indoor growing system covering one acre of land within Greater Vancouver.

The system, featuring 96 double-stacked modules that look like shipping containers, will be able to produce the equivalent of 100 acres’ worth of salad products grown in a field. Another 24-module system offering a controlled environment for growing crops was also sold recently to customers in Calgary.

Indoor growing allows for crops to be grown 12 months a year, while cultivation is less labor-intensive than sending workers outdoors to face the heat, cold, or rain. A 2019 Royal Bank of Canada report estimates that the country’s agricultural labor shortage will grow to 123,000 positions by 2030.

“And so we need technology to be able to eliminate the requirement for so much labor.”

CubicFarms CEO Dave Dinesen said the company’s flagship modules, which feature rotating trays that bring crops to workers who stand in front, might have been considered a “nice-to-have” technology not too long ago.

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