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Automation is creating new career opportunities says Inside View

January 18, 2017  By Gary Jones

February 2017 – I don’t very often check out the business section of the BBC News page, but a recent headline caught my eye. “In the not-too-distant future, our fields could be tilled, sown, tended and harvested entirely by fleets of co-operating autonomous machines by land and air.”1

It was partly the heading, but also the fact that agriculture automation was being flagged up on such a prominent, public news site that caught my eye. Jackpot – it’s like being on the front page of a Google™ search!

Discussing “Driverless Tractors that Follow Pre-Programmed Routes,” “Drones Buzzing Over Fields Assessing Crop Health and Soil Conditions,” and “In Japan, the World’s First Entirely Automated Lettuce Farm is Due for Launch Next Year,” the report added that “they’ll be working both day and night.” The basic assumption was that technology could “help farmers produce more food, more sustainably, at lower cost.”1


This sector of automation is growing at an incredible rate, and in a project called “The Hands Free Hectare,” engineers in England are trying to show it’s now possible to farm a field without a human ever setting foot on it. And “Japanese firm Spread’s automated (vertical rise) vegetable factory in Kyoto, due to launch next year, could produce 30,000 lettuces a day.”1All done by machine.

You may have seen the (night) light shows presented by dozens of drones flying in ever-changing formations, creating stunning 3-D patterns of multi-coloured LEDs.

A 21st century equivalent of millennia-old Chinese pyrotechnics perhaps. Well, agricultural engineers are using drones to work together in swarms, for example moving to high concentrations of weeds in a field to help out their aerial weeding colleagues.

Of course, automation might promise more efficient food production, but some would argue it also threatens agricultural jobs. The BBC claims that “robots will surely accelerate this decline” (in the percentage of agricultural jobs in the workforce).

This year’s students in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Greenhouse Structures and Equipment course were asked to make a 15-minute movie on “The Greenhouse of the Future.” Many of the resulting broad concepts of rooftop glasshouses, greenhouses on floating barges, vertical garden tower buildings and food production in derelict buildings are already happening on a fairly wide scale. But, as ever, many stressed that labour would be crucial and automation extensive. Nearing the end of their two years of studies, it was interesting to see how concerned – almost fearful – these students were of the potential reduction in jobs because of the mechanization they are seeing. Fear not, I say …

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC) recently published its “Agriculture 2025: How the Sector’s Labour Challenges Will Shape its Future” report. This points to the fact that “in 2014, 26,400 jobs went unfilled in Canada’s agriculture sector, which cost the sector $1.5 billion in lost revenues.” Because of this, agriculture now relies on foreign workers for 12 per cent of its workforce. The gap is widening, and by 2025, CAHRC claims the sector’s labour shortage will increase to 113,800 people. For our sector, “the greenhouse, nursery and floriculture industry will continue to have the widest gap,” with about 27,000 jobs unfilled by 2025.

Horticulture jobs of the future will surely include “agri-drone squadron supervisor,” “vertical farm technology manager” and perhaps a “robo-cop.” Exciting sounding careers? CAHRC says the number of lower-end jobs not being filled is increasing rapidly. So automation is perhaps developing in response to (rather than creating) these labour issues. That leaves more fulfilling jobs looking for suitable candidates. Human-less fields do not mean no farmers on site. They mean the farmer has changed. Surely this is a great time to be entering this fascinating industry.

  1. Padraig Belton, Technology of Business reporter, 25th November 2016.

Gary Jones is co-chair of horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

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