Zoom calls and online shopping: Life on Canadian farms in 2020


Whether he’s in a field with his truck, tractor or combine, if Tom Senko has some spare time, he’s usually on his iPhone, which has become an essential part of farming, especially this summer during the pandemic.

With the device in his hand, the 50-year-old farmer from Humboldt, Sask, monitors the moisture and temperature of his fields, spends time marketing his crops to buyers, and keeps an eye on advance weather information, so he knows which parts of his land may receive rain and how much. 

The pandemic has sped up the adoption of technology in the agricultural industry as farmers spend more time with digital tools and programs and less time having face-to-face meetings. 

Just as most people have turned to online shopping this year because of the pandemic lockdown and spent much more of their work day on video calls, the same trends are happening on the farm.

Senko, who grows grain and oilseeds on about 4,000 hectares, ordered much of his seed and other supplies online this year, for the first time, and he also started using Zoom and other video conferencing programs to communicate with experts if he has a problem with a particular weed or pest.

Senko collects a variety of data about his crops, including yield trends, water use, and the temperature and humidity levels of his fields. (Don Somers/CBC News)

“I was really hesitant at first,” Senko said about video calling. “I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be a train wreck,’ but it’s been really good. I haven’t been Zoom-bombed yet.”

‘Complicated business’

Digital technology has played a growing role in agriculture in recent years, from using data to monitor the health of livestock to employing mobile apps to control the irrigation of fields or the temperature of a barn, among many examples.

Nutrien makes the kind of software used by farmers. The Calgary-based international fertilizer company says it has seen a noticeable rise in uptake of its data collection tools designed for farmers, such as tracking the amount of water being consumed on a farm or how much carbon is being emitted and how much sequestered.  

“Farmers need help to make a lot of decisions. This is a very complicated business, especially trying to balance productivity of their land and climate change,” said Nutrien chief executive Chuck Magro.

A bucket of freshly harvested grain on Senko’s farm. (Don Somers/CBC News)

Nutrien set a goal at the beginning of the year to reach $500 million in online sales in 2020, but easily blew through that target a few months into the pandemic. Beyond e-commerce, Magro says, the digital tools can improve efficiency and sustainability in the industry.

“It’s a great set of tools that I think are very timely and very important, because we have to work through how agriculture is going to contribute to improving climate change.” 

The pandemic has sped up the industry’s transition, though it hasn’t been without challenges. Access to high-speed internet is still unreliable in some parts of rural Canada, and the problem has been more apparent than ever this year.

“This year, it made you realize how important the internet is,” said Greg Stamp, a seed farmer in Enchant, Alta., about 200 kilometres southeast of Calgary. 

“Our rural internet just can’t keep up. It gets bogged down and sometimes is just unusable. We definitely noticed that. It’s a weakness in rural infrastructure.” 

WATCH | Innovation on the farm is more than just online shopping:

Nutrien CEO Chuck Magro says more farmers are buying product online because of the pandemic and they are also using more digital programs do improve efficiency and sustainability on the farm. 1:20

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