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Canadians need to be very wary; marketing boards may seem to be unique to Canada, but so are the conditions under which our food is produced. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
Canadians need to be very wary; marketing boards may seem to be unique to Canada, but so are the conditions under which our food is produced. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Down on the farm with robo-milker Add to ...

There's a new kind of worker doing the chores on Canadian farms.

Robotic farmhands are helping farmers keep costs in check as they struggle to compete with global rivals. The new farm-bots are harvesting tender fruit, milking cows - even planting greenhouse flowers - for owners who are under pressure from the larger-scale operations, longer growing seasons and lax labour practices of factory farms in the United States, Mexico, South America and Asia.

At the same time, low interest rates and the high Canadian dollar are making it cheaper to import the latest in high-tech machinery from the United States and Europe - machinery that can perform repetitive tasks without the crop damage of earlier models.

"The thing that surprised me is that robots are a lot cheaper than I thought. You know, $40,000 to $50,000 - rather than millions," said Jim Brandle, chief executive officer of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland Station, Ont., a not-for-profit organization that assists horticulture farmers with innovation.

The push for greater efficiency through technology comes at a crucial time for Canadian farmers: Despite a heavy reliance on temporary foreign workers, labour costs are increasingly pinching profit margins as offshore growers turn to even cheaper, and often illegal, workers. And farmers have been grappling with the added pain of high energy costs, which have been soaring in recent weeks in response to unrest in the Middle East.

For Ontario dairy farmer John Walker, high-tech machinery such as "Lely" the feed-pushing robot, and a computerized "milking parlour" help reduce labour costs and boost production.

Mr. Walker and his family own two dairy farms in Aylmer, Ont. With about 2,500 cattle, including 1,100 lactating cows, their dairy business ranks among Canada's largest.

Last fall, Mr. Walker imported a $25,000 robot from Germany that allows his cows to basically feed on demand - no matter the hour. "It can go all day, all night, when no one is even there. It is pushing feed in, which helps increase milk production." Well-fed cows produce more milk.

A couple years ago, the family installed the computerized milking parlour. Resembling a large carousel, it slowly rotates as the cows get on and off.

Each cow is equipped with a transponder. When a cow enters the milking parlour, its transponder number is read. The computer then records the amount of milk it produces.

While the high-tech milking parlour doesn't go as far as some robotic milkers on the market - some even clean the cow's udder before milking - it can flag cows that are sick or in heat. The transponder tracks how many steps each animal takes during the day: When a cow is in heat, it moves around a lot more, whereas a sick cow will have a noticeable drop in activity.

The parlour holds up to 50 cows at a time, allowing 250 to 300 cows to be milked per hour. That compares to a maximum of 90 cows per hour under the old system. "Nothing is ramming [them] They just kind of roll at their own pace," Mr. Walker said.

No one is suggesting robots will ever entirely replace human workers, but rising labour costs are forcing farmers of all kinds to sharpen their focus on innovation.

About 65 per cent of all farms earn gross revenues of less than $100,000 a year, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. In that context, "wages are definitely a big issue," executive director Danielle Vinette said.

In 1999, Canadian farms spent $3.1-billion on wages, room and board. By 2009, that had risen to $4.3-billion - with more than half that amount earmarked for non-family wages.

That's precisely why horticulture farmer Robert Bierhuizen sees investing in robots as a "matter of survival." He produces 1.2 million potted flowering plants a year at his greenhouse in Vineland Station, and uses robotic technology to automate potting and pot spacing.

He's now looking at investing in a vision-based robot that can be programmed to do more intricate tasks such as examining a pot, counting its flowers and judging whether it is suitable for shipment. The robot alone costs $40,000 to $100,000, but a complete system, including all the necessary hardware and software, is as much as $250,000.

"I'm not saying that it can totally replace people … But it will help people because it will increase their production level," Mr. Bierhuizen says.

Economic factors are also making it easier for farmers to step up their game. Canadian farmers spent more than $4.2-billion on imports of agricultural machinery in 2010 as the loonie marched toward parity.

That compares to total outlays of $3.2-billion in 2000 - a year when the loonie traded between 63.97 and 69.84 cents (U.S.), according to data from the Bank of Canada.

Experts say the high dollar and low borrowing rates should buttress more spending this year. Most high-tech equipment is imported from the United States and Europe. Manufacturers include U.S.-based Harvest Automation Inc. and Lely Holding, which is headquartered in the Netherlands but active in more than 60 countries.

Virginia Labbie, a senior policy analyst for agri-business with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says farmers' capital spending plans have been "above average" for the past few months.

"It's not surprising that more farmers are investing more in capital [expenditures]given the high Canadian dollar and the shortage of qualified labour," Ms. Labbie said. "Really, our ag members have to be ahead of the curve to stay competitive."

Phil Tregunno, who produces grapes, peaches and other tender fruit on his family farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, uses a high-tech packaging system that can photograph each fruit, measure its size and look for damage.

He recently returned from the Fruit Logistica trade show in Berlin, where he ordered a new system that records other food safety information such as a fruit's originating orchard and harvest date. That set him back about $100,000, but the higher loonie took out some of the sting.

David Rinneard, national manager of agriculture at Bank of Montreal, said more and more farmers are employing high-tech solutions to reduce labour and input costs. Wheat and corn farmers have for decades benefited from the use of self-propelled combines, since grain crops are more uniform in size and less susceptible to damage than tender fruit and vegetable crops. But now they're also using satellite imagery and GPS technology to enhance their yields. Such "precision agriculture management systems" maximize acreage use, while curbing waste of seed, fertilizer and herbicide.

For example, the technology is connected to "auto-steer" mechanisms on tractors to ensure perfectly straight rows. It can also constantly measure nitrogen levels in the soil to ensure the appropriate amount of fertilizer is used. "It is perpetually reacting to where ever it is in the field," Mr. Rinneard said.

Mr. Tregunno says European fruit farmers are much more advanced with the use of robotics for harvesting and hopes the technology will be eventually employed in Canadian orchards.

"Europe has changed a lot … We're not there just yet but we need to be there," Mr. Tregunno said. Other than tractors and other vehicles, "out in the orchard, it is still basically done the same way as the last 100 years."

Importing labour

There is a growing urgency for farmers to slash labour costs because rising energy prices are poised to drive up other expenses like transportation and the prices of key inputs like fertilizer.

Consumers, meanwhile, are increasingly interested in buying local food, providing farmers with added incentive to cut their costs so they can effectively compete on price.

"Our advantage in Canada is we can innovate," said Jim Brandle, chief executive officer of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland Station, Ont.

Labour costs vary by farm and crop. Faced with a shortage of Canadian agricultural labour, farmers have increasingly employed temporary foreign workers since the late 1960s.

In 2009, 23,372 workers exclusively from Mexico and the Caribbean entered Canada under the now 45-year-old Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Between January and September of 2010, that tally hit 23,860. Full-year results are still being compiled but that compares with 16,710 entries in 2000.

Migrant farm workers from those and other countries can enter Canada under the agricultural stream of the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training. A total of 1,575 did so in 2009, up from 115 in 2002 when the program was created.

The rules, including those governing wages, vary for each program. Generally speaking, though, farmers must cover costs including either part or all of a foreign worker's travel expenses, and provide housing in addition to wages and overtime.

Unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada argue that migrant workers are poorly paid and often endure harsh working conditions.

Mr. Brandle, however, estimates that each foreign worker costs a horticulture farmer, on average, about $14 a hour when considering the full gamut of expenses.

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