Proximity to farmers is a competitive advantage for Saskatchewan manufacturers. From smart drones to autonomous tractors, Saskatchewan machine manufacturers are leading the way in supporting the growth and sustainability of farming in the province.
According to a recent provincial report, manufacturing continues to be a major contributor to jobs and opportunities for economic growth in Saskatchewan. Around 30,000 people work in manufacturing in the province. Machine manufacturing, which includes agriculture, is second only to food production in Saskatchewan for employment.1 In 2021, seasonally adjusted year-over-year sales in manufacturing increased by 53 per cent, the highest in Canada, and the sector’s productivity increase per hour just prior to the pandemic was second only to Alberta.2
Unsurprisingly, a fair chunk of this innovation and technology is being developed and produced for the transportation and agricultural sectors. And the proximity of manufacturing to farmers in this province is no coincidence. It’s a competitive advantage.
“We have a lot of innovation in Saskatchewan,” says Blair Flavel, president and CEO of Degelman Industries, a large farm implement manufacturer in Regina that got its start on its founder’s farm. “Farmers are out there, and they run into trouble and they fix something and they go you know what I think other people are running into the same problems and that’s where the innovation comes from.”
An especially fertile ground for manufacturing innovation in agriculture, mining, and transportation can be found around Humboldt in what is often referred to as the “Iron Triangle.” The region boasts a wide range of manufacturers, such as Doepker Industries and CIM in the transport industry, and farm implement producers, like Schulte Industries and Bourgault Industries.
Making it happen
Part of the innovation ecosystem in the region is the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI).
This unique organization works with major manufacturers in mining, agriculture, and transportation to do third-party validations or head-to-head comparisons. They also support startups and entrepreneurs with engineering, prototyping, testing, and even something as seemingly simple as insights from farm experience. PAMIs chief executive officer, Leah Olson, is no stranger to on the farm innovation. Her father created the drop pin on her family farm, which Olson suggests is the farm equivalent to inventing facial tissue or sticky notes.
While the “hard steel” inventions, like the drop pin, are still happening, Olson says today the significant innovations are “more likely to be in the digital world.” And her goal at PAMI is to facilitate, encourage, and support innovations that impact systems.
“The major game changes for agriculture are going to be on more of the operating systems, the hardware, [and] how the systems integrate with one another,” says Olson. “I want to ensure that evolution occurs, that PAMI continues to be a one-stop-shop for those entrepreneurs or established farmers that say, I don’t know, I don’t really like this system, I think there’s a new system, or here’s my idea to fix it.”
Rising to the challenge
Whether hard steel or digital, a large part of the motivation behind an invention is the need to solve a specific problem. And there is no shortage of challenges in broadacre farming in today’s world. Besides a need to make up for a labour shortage, climate change, and supply chain issues, the pressure on broadacre farms to produce ever more food for a growing world, while remaining sustainable is a major hurdle, and the pandemic only exacerbated it.
“The world has demonstrated through the pandemic that food is a very important resource,” says Olson. “And by virtue of the broadacre productive lands that we have in Saskatchewan, there’s suddenly a real sincere interest in what’s happening in Saskatchewan.”
Olson suggests that technology has a major role to play in how farmers realize this growth, and Saskatchewan manufactures have an opportunity to fill some gaps.
Trying to beat Mother Nature “you might win once in a while, but you’re not going to consistently win,” she says.
But if manufacturers can produce the technology to do some of the activities that are either repetitive or where the probability of human error is quite high, then farmers can harness that technology to improve yields, better navigate uncertainties, and increase efficiencies, Olson says.
Whether it’s producing automated machinery or equipment that monitors field moisture, manufacturers in this province can also test, fail, learn, and iterate like few other places in the world.
“What makes our organization so unique is that we provide technical expertise, but we also have a tonne of equipment where we can test [prototypes],” says Olson. “Ideally, we’re helping entrepreneurs fail fast and cheaply and then they can learn from that and move forward.”
Besides expertise and testing facilities, PAMI also leaves the intellectual property rights in the hands of the inventor or entrepreneur. Something quite unusual in the R&D world. Plus, they employ people with farm experience. For manufacturers in this province, the proximity to farmers is critical, says Olson.
“When I think about the role of the farmer in the development of automation, or manufacturing or food manufacturing, I always come back to they’re at the heart of it,” says Olson. “If we can save the farmer money, then we probably have something that’s pretty good, if we can save them time, when that’s something that’s probably pretty good, [but] if we can save them time and money, then we’ve got a success.”
1Strong Growth in Saskatchewan Manufacturing Sales, Government of Saskatchewan, https://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/news-and-media/2021/december/21/strong-growth-in-saskatchewan-manufacturing-sales
2Overview of the Manufacturing Sector in Saskatchewan, Government of Saskatchewan https://publications.saskatchewan.ca/api/v1/products/88143/formats/104820/download