Proven performance trumps cost in agriculture innovation adoption, NCO research suggests

When Ontario farmers consider introducing new technologies into their operations, there’s a laundry list of factors in addition to cost that go into determining whether they’re a fit.

Although the inclusion of innovation can be seen as a significant investment, cost is often outweighed by performance when results are proven and make sense for the operation in question, new research by Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) says.

The NCO’s latest policy brief, presented during a virtual event Wednesday, Dec. 8, examines the barriers and drivers to adoption of automation and robotics in Ontario’s agriculture sector. The research combines analysis of survey data from Ontario farms with that of in-depth interviews conducted with farmers and agriculture innovation stakeholders.

The paper was authored by Amy Lemay, NCO Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor in Brock’s Environmental Sustainability Research Centre; Charles Conteh, Professor of Public Policy and Management in the Department of Political Science and NCO Director; and Jeff Boggs, Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies and NCO Interim Director.

The brief is the NCO’s latest agriculture innovation policy research, funded through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

Its findings suggest that widespread adoption of automation and robotics technologies in the agriculture sector is dependent on:

  • Technologies that provide solutions to real problems.
  • Technologies with proven and validated performance and benefits.
  • Equipment suppliers with local and reliable service, maintenance and technical support.
  • Governance frameworks for data that protect privacy and security.
  • Policies and programs that incentivize early adopters and smaller farms.

“Our results suggest that any perceived failures on the part of farmers to adopt automation and robotics technologies are not because they’re inherently slow adopters due to their overly risk-adverse or conservative nature, rather we’re seeing that farmers are making objectively rational decisions,” Lemay says. “Farmers are showing a reluctance to adopt technologies with unproven performance or profitability from suppliers with uncertain futures who have weak connections to or understanding of the agriculture sector.”

Lemay says the team’s research found that “for most farmers, performance was more important than cost or ease of use when they were choosing a technology.”

But challenges for adoption arose when it came to technologies that had yet to tangibly demonstrate promised benefits, as well as those unable to provide local, reliable access to service, parts and maintenance over the long term, given that many technologies are imported from multinational manufacturers based outside of Canada.

To address these concerns, Lemay says it may be necessary for researchers and technology solution providers to build collaborations with established, local farm equipment distributors and retailers to bring new technologies to market.

“Our findings point to the need for reconsidering, rethinking and revisiting how adoption of agri-food innovations is supported and promoted in the province,” Conteh says. “We want to generate solutions for accelerating technology transfer and adoption. While empirically our focus is on Ontario, our findings hold implications for all of Canada.”

The next phase of the study, which is now underway, has researchers interviewing stakeholders from Canadian ‘superclusters’ — NGen in Hamilton and Protein Industries Canada in Saskatoon — to gain a broader understanding of the drivers and barriers to the adoption of technologies, Lemay says.

The final phase, to take place this winter, will include a series of focus groups that will bring together agri-food stakeholders from industry, government and academia to identify policy and government recommendations for supporting and promoting the adoption of automation and robotics technologies.

Following Wednesday’s brief presentation, a panel discussion was held featuring industry stakeholders: Kathryn Carter, Tender Fruit and Grape Specialist, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; Hussam Haroun, Director, Automation, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre; and Rodney Bierhuizen, Co-owner, Sunrise Greenhouses.

The Niagara Community Observatory’s latest brief, “Growing Agri-Innovation: Investigating the barriers and drivers to the adoption of automation and robotics in Ontario’s agriculture sector,” is available on the NCO website.


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