Farmers reaping big rewards from new smartphone apps

Canadian farmers who are embracing mobile phones and apps say the technology holds great potential for how they do their jobs, and ultimately for how food can be produced more safely and efficiently for consumers.

The agricultural sector's use of apps is growing rapidly after a slow start, and mobile technology could boost farm efficiency and cut food costs for Canadian consumers.

Andrew Campbell has eagerly embraced the mobile technology that he thinks will have great potential for helping Canadian farmers do their jobs. (Courtesy Andrew Campbell)

When Andrew Campbell wanted to check out how well wheat planted on his family's farm last fall was coming out of dormancy this spring, the southwestern Ontario farmer turned to a tiny high-tech tool to help track the crop’s progress — his phone.

Smartphone in hand, Campbell marked GPS points in an app, creating a quick and easily accessible record of places in the field near Appin, Ont., that might be prime spots for soil or insect problems as the wheat grows over the next few months.

As a tech-savvy young farmer, the 27-year-old Campbell has eagerly embraced smartphone technology. He sees it having great potential to help Canadian farmers, and ultimately to produce food more safely and efficiently for Canadian consumers.

"Before too long, a smartphone is going to be how a farmer runs their operation," says Campbell, who also manages his own new media consulting firm.

"I've got a neighbour that's got video cameras installed in their barn. He can pull it up on his phone and check calving pens and the barnyard.

"If he's away, if he's got a day job, too, he can check in at lunchtime and send somebody if there's a problem."

The latest technological transformations in Canadian agriculture see producers using their smartphones to run everything from robotic milkers to wind machines that churn up the air in an attempt to thwart extreme weather in vineyards.

Up-to-date statistics are few and far between, but Campbell says it’s "not too far-fetched to believe" that more than half of Canadian farmers are now carrying a smartphone everywhere they go.

Scarce apps

The agricultural sector's use of apps is growing rapidly, after a slightly slower-than-average uptake compared to mobile technology use in other types of business. Campbell says phone apps are appealing for farmers because of the instant access they provide to information and communication, whether from the barn, the field or on the road.

But finding farming-related apps for those devices hasn't been easy.

One of the problems is that farmers are a relatively small market for apps, since they represent only two per cent of the Canadian population. App developers were caught, Campbell suggests, waiting to see which smartphone platform — Android, BlackBerry or iPhone — was going to win favour with a critical mass of farmers.

Things are, however, starting to change.

"In the last 12 months — really the last six months, over this winter — more and more apps have rolled out on a fairly regular basis that are looking to make big strides in the way farmers use information," says Campbell.

Ones that deal with crop scouting — checking to make sure fields aren't subject to any threats from weeds or insects, for example — have proved particularly popular.

It's also an international trend, with apps popping up for farmers everywhere from Australia to the United States.

Filling a void

Still, agriculture apps are anything but a dime a dozen, and for one Cape Breton farmer, that void became the motivation he needed to make his own.

Chris van den Heuvel spent 12 years working as a software developer before he and his wife took over her parents' dairy farm.

"When the opportunity to came up to buy the farm from my wife's parents, we were looking for software that would just help us analyze the efficiency of the operation … and there wasn't any," he says.

"We were looking for something that didn't just focus on cows but focused on the cropping, focused on the heifer-raising and all of that. Once I couldn’t find anything, I said here's an opportunity … to make something up."

Van den Heuvel says there was some trial and error in the development of his app, and he's still putting finishing touches on it before taking it to market.

The app, which helped him see how much it was costing to produce every litre of milk, has been an "eyeopener" on his own farm and led to changes in what he gives his cattle to eat (feed bought from a mill is out, high-moisture corn is in).

He's talked to consultants and industry experts who have told him a dairy farmer with a 75-cow herd could reap a $7,000 net profit through efficiency gains using the app he developed.

Van den Heuvel hopes to find a cross-country market for his as-yet unnamed software. He says its potential extends beyond any one farmer's individual operation because it allows them to compare their operations with those of other app users.

Good bugs

Another app developed at the University of Guelph aims to help soybean growers deal with soybean aphids, a tiny pest that can wreak havoc on the crop.

Rebecca Hallett, an associate professor in Guelph's school of environment science, led the creation of Aphid Advisor.

The app was developed at a cost of about $35,000. It helps growers determine if they need to take action against the tiny pests, and whether natural enemies in the field (good bugs like lady beetles) might be enough for a farmer to control the problem, rather than turning to an insecticide.

"One of the most important things it does is to simply remind people and make them aware that there are beneficial insects in their fields that are helping them out," says Hallett.

"Just [being] aware of their presence may help to alter practices so growers take into account more of the conservation of natural enemies, which can also help to limit outbreaks of pests."

Last year was the first full growing season the app was available, and Hallett estimates about 600 growers have downloaded it, with "generally positive" feedback.

'Cheaper, safer product'

While farmers can gain immediate benefit from their smartphones and the burgeoning app market, the impact such technology holds could extend beyond the field or barnyard.

Van den Heuvel sees a "two-fold" benefit to the ways technology is transforming agriculture.

"It helps us develop and grow a better product by becoming more efficient, and thus we can keep costs down and ultimately keep it cheaper for the consumer.

"But it's also really helping us create safer product as well," he says, citing the potential, for example, of a robotic milker sensing through a cow's temperature that the animal is sick.

"You can … isolate that cow, and you don't have to be treating by antibiotics…. You keep all of that stuff out of the food chain, so really the advantages I see are a cheaper, safer product for the end consumer."

Campbell also sees "multiple impacts" from the advances in communication and mobile technology.

"While Canadian products are among the safest in the world, consumers continue to demand more in the way of checks and audits along the food chain. These devices will make it easier to follow some of the certification programs."

Family farms are also continuing to grow in size, and Campbell says managing them requires a "high degree of detail and efficiency" that smartphones make possible.

Smartphones also allow easy access to social media tools such as Twitter, something Campbell says can help in reaching out to consumers or giving them the opportunity to ask farmers questions about production.

Mobile technology also allows the farmer to break free of cables and cords and notebooks, "to the point that we are going to be able to run farms and access more information than ever before on a device that fits in our hand," says Campbell.

"I know my grandfather, as he watches us, he's amazed with just what we're capable of now doing and looking up and sending compared to when he was starting farming."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.