The 1984 version of data-driven farming
Novel computer program aimed to help farmers make better business decisions 35 years ago
It seemed high-tech in its time, despite its now-retro look.
It was a computerized questionnaire developed at the University of Manitoba, which a farmer could use to see how a farm would fare in the years to come.
And in 1984, that was useful information to come by when your living depended on buying, planting and selling crops.
"It asks 40 questions and the answer can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy," the CBC's Susan Ormiston explained to viewers on The National on Nov. 28, 1984.
"This computer asks a farmer how much he makes, what his farm's worth and what his debts are. It adds in different prices, interest rates and weather patterns and then it predicts whether the farm is likely to grow or go bankrupt over the next 10 years."
'How likely is that very promising future?'
Daryl Kraft, a member of the University of Manitoba's Department of Agricultural Economics, explained why the program was trying to provide a more realistic forecast of what was likely to occur.
"Many decisions — investment decisions in agriculture — have been made under some fairly optimistic futures, where the future looked very promising to the investor," Kraft told The National.
"Now, the question is, how likely is that very promising future, how often is that going to occur?"
The program was made available to both farmers and bankers, either on the university's Winnipeg campus or via telephone.
'Why is it saying that?'
Ormiston said it was then being tested out by the Royal Bank in Saskatchewan.
Banker John Murphy said farmers had mixed reactions to what the computer program had told them.
"One farmer when he saw what the computer predicted he just said: 'B.S., there's no way that's going to be the case," said Murphy, who spoke to CBC News in Regina.
"Another farmer, he scratched his head, you know, and he said: 'Well, why is it saying that?' And we went through each year as to how his business would have changed."
'It's only a tool'
Norm Edie was among those farmers who saw potential in what computers could do. But he felt they had limits, as well.
"The problem arises when Mother Nature doesn't come through the way we expect, or the markets aren't there, or if they are there, there's a 25 per cent reduction in price," he said.
Ormiston told viewers the computer program actually could help farmers adjust to changing circumstances, like those Edie had outlined.
"But it's only a tool: It can't change prices, lower interest rates or improve the weather — the things that make farming a risky business."