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10 Years Together

Posted by stephanie Rogers on November 22, 2022 in News
Rendering of proposed Digital Agriculture Centre for the Faculty of Agriculture.
Rendering of proposed Digital Agriculture Centre for the Faculty of Agriculture.

When Dr. David Gray became Dalhousie’s Dean of Agriculture in 2013, the Agricultural Campus was at a crossroads. Having merged with the university one year prior, there was some question as to how the ensuing relationship would work and how the campus would build on the rich legacy of education and research it created as the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

Ten years on, the answer is clear. Through initiatives such as the Indigenous Student Access Pathway, the introduction of its PhD program in Agricultural Studies, and infrastructure investments—most notably the rebuilds following the fires that extensively damaged the Ruminant Animal Centre and Cox Institute—the campus is more diverse, innovative, and academically rigorous.

“Dalhousie really stepped up to the plate and then some to help us make all of that possible,” Dr. Gray says. “So much so that I believe we are in a very good place to take the next step as a faculty.”

That next step will be a crucial one for the campus, the agricultural industry, and, to some extent, the world. Climate change is having a significant impact on crop availability, accessibility, and quality, resulting in increased food insecurity both here and globally. It is a challenge that is likely to be exacerbated by continued population growth. Estimates suggest that we will reach the 10 billion population threshold in the next 30 years. More production is required to keep pace with that growth, which raises concerns about the impacts increased activity will have on soil health and access to fresh water—both of which are essential for the agriculture industry, and much of life on the planet.

“The next decade is going to be crucial if we are to successfully address these issues,” Dr. Gray says. “Agriculture will play a key role in the solutions we find, and so will our faculty.”

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the campus and the impact it can have in addressing these issues and making agriculture more sustainable and robust. For one, the Faculty has added more than 20 new professors since 2017, all of whom are helping to attract more research funding and more students.  

“That’s a really big deal for the agricultural community and it exemplifies the calibre of talent we have access to as part of Dalhousie,” says Lisa Doucette (Class of ’98), Assistant Dean of Advancement with the Faculty of Agriculture. “That is a launch pad for us to access more resources to strengthen our infrastructure and get ahead of the curve in terms of the challenges facing the agricultural industry.”

There is also increased engagement occurring with other Dalhousie faculties. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture is partnering with the Faculty of Science to launch a first-year program that will enable students from the region to start their Dalhousie journey close to home before completing their studies in Halifax. Plans are also in the works to launch a similar offering for computer science students. Efforts such as these open the door for further collaborations that will benefit students, faculty, growers, and the community, according to Professor and Associate Dean Research, Dr. Chris Cutler.

“We are entering a new era of farming that is focused on production but even more so on strategies and systems, such as which tasks can be handled by smart technologies,” he says. “To get there, we need to rethink the way that we conduct research and educate people. This is where our colleagues in computer science and engineering really complement what we’re doing here because they can apply the machine learning platforms they are developing to the issues we are exploring. Or we can work with the faculties of medicine and health to see how agriculture can address the chronic health challenges facing our society. That's where the synergy between our faculty and the rest of Dalhousie has the potential to have huge impact.”

Such efforts will also be facilitated by plans for a major undertaking that has the potential to significantly enhance the resilience, sustainability, and yield of growers regionally and around the world: the Digital Agriculture Centre. This proposed $20m state-of-the-art project, which will encompass a new facility, research Chairs, scholarships and more, will address a long-standing challenge facing the agriculture industry.

“We are really good at collecting data, but we are not great at assessing it or using it to make strategic management decisions,” Lisa says. “Part of that is due to labour shortages that have many growers in survival mode, but it is also due to agriculture becoming increasingly technology driven. From milkers to feeders, there is so much data being generated that it is hard to make sense of it and use it.

This is where the Digital Agriculture Centre can make a difference. More than serving as an accessible central repository for historical and live agricultural data collected from across the region and the campus’ own research farm, it is intended to be a value-add for industry. The facility will enable researchers to conduct and deliver analyses of the data it collects to enable growers to be more strategic in their farm management decisions.

“Part of our vision for the centre is to develop a team that bridges the gap between computer science and agriculture,” Dr. Gray explains. “We are working with our colleagues in the Faculty of Computer Science on joint appointments so that we have experts in place who have the capacity to analyze the data on behalf of the campus and our industry partners and then deliver insights that can be applied in beneficial ways.”

At the same time, the Digital Agriculture Centre will bridge another gap: the availability of research and analysis that is directly applicable to Atlantic Canada’s unique farming model, which predominately consists of small operations with multiple commodities. That same model is also predominant in emerging markets such as India, which creates opportunities for the Digital Agriculture Centre, and the campus, to export crop management analysis and expertise.

“Although there are other universities across Canada that have similar initiatives, their work involves 10,000-acre wheat farms or huge dairy cattle farms, so their findings don't always translate here," says Lisa. “For that reason, the research we do will be critical for our growers and for countries where they use similar models. The key is to get producers to use it, which is why the Digital Agriculture Centre will be industry focused—supporting research that is based on challenges that affect the industry or new technologies that have the potential to enhance operations.”

There are many ways that the Digital Agriculture Centre could deliver on that commitment to producing relevant insights. An assessment of cattle feed options that identifies the most effective and cost-efficient choice for dairy farmers to increase milk production. An analysis of climate and adverse weather conditions for blueberry farms participating in Nova Scotia’s Weather Station Assistance Program. Explorations of opportunities to extend our growing season and improve land use efficiency. Or a validation of technologies such as smart sprayers that selectively apply herbicides or sensors that determine the nitrogen levels in leaves. All of these would be impactful, but Dr. Cutler indicates the Digital Agriculture Centre is just a stating point for an overarching vision of evolution for the Faculty.

“We want to create smart farm innovation hub here,” he says. “We envision the campus as a kind of sandbox—a place where we and our industry partners can explore innovative ideas. Through data capture, management, and analysis we will enable everything from better technology development to better predictability for farming systems. By focusing on areas such as precision agriculture and machine learning, we will continue attracting academic talent that further bolsters our reputation and attractiveness among students and generates more funding for research.”

More funding, more research, and more academic talent—the Digital Agriculture Centre has the potential to make all this possible in ways that would be transformational for the agriculture industry. But it will also be transformative for the students who will eventually enter, or collaborate with, the field. “We have undergraduates coming to our campus who have very little exposure to digital agriculture,” Dr. Gray says. “As they progress toward a degree, they will gain specialized knowledge that will prepare them for honours, graduate, or postdoctoral research. Essentially, our learning environment will become a circle where our researchers and their activities inform our undergraduate programs, advancing both the learning experience we offer and the research we able to conduct here.”

The way forward is clear. The first step is a big and necessary one. Dr. Gray believes the Digital Agriculture Centre will be embraced and supported by alumni, industry, and the community alike. Not just because Dalhousie is committed to realizing it but also the fact that it could make a huge difference in helping to hold climate change in check and feeding the world.

“I am an optimist, naturally, but I think the stars are aligning for us,” he says. “All of Dalhousie is supportive. The University understands the importance of agriculture in addressing the challenges we face as a society and we are seeing significant interest among other faculties in wanting to collaborate with us. That creates a solid foundation for conducting applied research that will support our industry in being stronger and more competitive not just within Canada and North America, but across the globe.”