Archives

The 1984 version of data-driven farming

Thirty-five years ago, a computer program had been created to help farmers figure out how their farms would fare in future.

Novel computer program aimed to help farmers make better business decisions 35 years ago

In November 1984, The National reports on a computer program designed to help farmers make decisions about their farm work. 2:11

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?'

The University of Manitoba's Daryl Kraft explained that the computer program was trying to help guide farmers' decisions by giving them a more realistic forecast of their farms' fates. (The National/CBC Archives)

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?'

John Murphy of Royal Bank described a series of mixed reactions from farmers who had been shown the results of what the computer program had predicted for their farms. (The National/CBC Archives)

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'

Manitoba farmer Norm Edie was among those who saw potential in what computers could do for farmers like himself. (The National/CBC Archives)

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."