Digital Agriculture’s Big Picture: A Conversation With David Yee

We sat down with David Yee, one of the instructors of our Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist Program, to talk about the big picture for digital agriculture in Saskatchewan, and your career!

It’s fair to say that the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist Program from Palette Skills has been attracting a lot of attention. The innovative upskilling program gets people ready to work with precision technologies, big data, and even with robots and drones to build a smarter and more efficient agricultural sector. Bringing digitization and agriculture together is a huge opportunity, both in Saskatchewan and across the country, with implications for sustainability and food security—and even for Indigenous communities on the land.

These are the kinds of issues that have motivated David Yee to partner with Palette Skills and the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist Program. David has worked in the agricultural industry for over 20 years in both the private and government sector. He is currently the president of a consultancy focused on providing business intelligence on the emerging agtech ecosystem in Western Canada, and serves as the Executive in Residence to the College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

David is an exciting person to speak with, because he brings together a passionate view of the opportunities ahead in digital agriculture, together with an entrepreneurial energy that’s always focused on people, and on building capacity. We recently sat down with David to ask him about why he’s so excited about digital agriculture.

Q: What brought you to this place where you are trying to combine digitization and precision technology with agriculture? What helped you see that this is a really important edge for you to be on?

So if we turn back the clock a little bit, my background is actually in agriculture, and especially in the OEM side of things, or original equipment manufacture, the heavy machinery. That’s where you get the tractors, you get the combines, you get the spreaders. It’s really traditional stuff, and it’s what I call “big iron.”

I started working at an inter-provincial level, supporting the government here with technology and innovation, and as I was doing that I found that they were having a lot of trouble. And the reason why was that big iron was slowly moving away from being the driver, to now big data being the driver.

That was my by-line, that things are transitioning within agriculture, from big iron to big data, and big data was really an umbrella term I was using to talk to the public about digitization. What we were finding was that even though you were a farmer, and you bought a brand new tractor or a combine, what was controlling all of these machines was a tiny little electronic sensor. You know, it used to be that the iron was like the big part of the dog, and the sensor was the tail that was being wagged. This was all changing, and now this sensor was driving huge 600 horsepower machines, and the data that was in there was optimizing the ways these machines were being used.

Q: At the same time, it sounds like you could see that there were all these amazing digital tools out there, but they were’t yet fully synchronized with the big machines you’ve been talking about.

Yes, and what I was seeing was that agriculture has been one of the last strongholds or horizons to make the change to the digital age. Agriculture is not alone in being a conservative industry, and like other conservative industries, they rely on a heavy amount of labour, they tend to be rural-based, or isolated and remote, and they utilize a lot of heavy machinery. And what we’re talking about here is forestry, mining, and agriculture.

But what makes agriculture different from forestry and mining is that agriculture is driven by independent entrepreneurs, also known as farmers. And they have to be a lot more sensitive to how they manage their budgets, and about how quickly they can make a transition. Everything they spend money on needs to have a return on investment in a very short time. They don’t have the big war chests like large corporations do.

But little by little, sections of the overall agricultural compendium, so enterprises, farmers, people and so on, are saying things like there’s got to be a better way. And that’s how it starts. So really smart people are beginning to use the new technologies to improve the current state of the business. It’s exciting, but it’s not co-ordinated, and more than that, it’s not as integrated as it should be.

Q: As you’ve made clear, agriculture is an enormous space, and it’s made up of a lot of different activities. What are your thoughts about how big data is being used in the different parts of the agricultural scene, all the way from growing to processing and distribution?

When I draw the picture about this, I use two different terms. I use the term “on-farm,” and I use the term “post-farm gate.” Back in the day the farm gate was used as a visual. So when you opened that gate, and you went in or you went out, that was the delineation point. And you know for a long time, there was a big separation between what was happening on one side of the fence, and what was going on on the other. And what we are seeing now is that there is this relationship between what is happening on-farm, and post-farm gate, that digitization could help bring together, to assist with this transition we’ve been talking about.

There are pressures happening right now that are coming from society, and that are coming from the consumer side, where there are questions like: “Can you give us traceability, can you help us understand where our food comes from?” And that’s post-farm gate stretching back to on-farm. So on-farm, there are all these opportunities for farmers and producers to respond to these things, using tools like digitization and big data. It goes both ways, because digitization is one of the things that threads it all together. Remember we have become a society that is very sensitive to the unique nuances and information associated with our food system.

This is the brilliant part of the big data world. It’s creating more connectivity. It’s creating more efficiency, and it’s also giving us here in Canada a unique perspective, and unique tools for us to optimize our food, and the future of the food supply chain, and match consumer needs. It’s a big opportunity. When you think about what’s happening this year with the war in Ukraine, that has had a huge impact on the global food supply chain. At the same time, we’re enjoying one of the best crop years, especially here in Western Canada, and using these tools and technologies, we can be part of the solution for some of these problems that are happening around the world. 

Q: You’ve talked a lot about some of the opportunities, but obviously there are challenges as well. What do you think is at stake with where we are at now?

One of the key messages I try to tell people is this. Even though there is a lot going on terms of technology in agriculture, we can never forget that it’s one of the building blocks of human life. If we don’t get food right, and if we don’t make food secure, and if we don’t rally around making food safe, and make sure it’s there and meaningful for everybody, then as a species, we’re going to suffer.

Q: We know you do a lot of work with indigenous communities in Saskatchewan around some of these opportunities. Can you talk to us a little about what you are saying and hearing when you speak to Indigenous people in Saskatchewan about agriculture and technology?

Well let’s talk about some really important general trends. Number one, in agriculture, the population is dropping in rural areas. And this has been happening for the better part of the last three decades. The overall desire of young people to stay on the farm and rural places has been declining. We have a shortage of labour, and we have a shortage of people who are interested in being in a rural community.

The indigenous population is one of the strongest growing populations, especially in our province, but even more than this, they are really engaged, and find themselves rooted in the rural experience. So we talk about lack of labour in the rural areas, and a very strong First Nations component in the rural areas. But what else is going on?

Indigenous people in Saskatchewan right now own about four million acres of land. But right now, Indigenous people are actively managing and farming on about 15% of that land. So they have a situation in front of them, where as more and more people lose interest in being in rural areas and on the land, where there will be a lot of pressure and opportunity for the Indigenous community to take back some of their land, and become active participants.

Because ultimately this is an opportunity for indigenous people to take a look at an asset they already have, and the question is, do they want to turn that economic opportunity into something benefiting them directly? So not being passive in the economic opportunity, but being active and engaged in the economic opportunity.

Q: So what do you think are some of the tools that can be used to get people to see themselves in this opportunity?

There’s a real limitation when it comes to education. What always stops all of us when someone asks us to do something that’s new to us, is that we don’t want to get into uncomfortable, and unsafe positions. When I am talking to people in the Indigenous community, people are really interested, but what they say to me is how do I get from here to there? I wasn’t raised on a farm, I don’t have experience with heavy equipment. And people are also saying to me that just because you get me in there, in farming, that doesn’t guarantee me success. Where do I get the knowledge, the tips and tricks, so I can be competitive and innovative, really work with the ecosystem, but avoid all of the pitfalls of a lack of tribal knowledge?

For anyone trying to enter into agriculture, I see one of the foundations of success—and it’s not just about Indigenous people—they need to acquire domain familiarity, and that domain familiarity needs to get them into an early transitional position. And from there, they can begin to develop their tribal knowledge and acquire domain expertise. And when you arrive at domain expertise, when you get to where you’re comfortable, you’re just rocking and rolling.

This is why I have been excited about partnering with the Digital Agriculture Specialist Program from Palette Skills. You know, on a holistic level, what I like about what Palette Skills is that they are bringing agricultural technology education to where the people actually are. And that’s really important, because if I want to gain domain familiarity and expertise, ok I can go to a college and get an agricultural degree. That’s four years, and about 20 k. And let’s think about what a challenge this can be for people who living on the land, and in their rural communities. It’s a real barrier. So when I talk about Palette Skills bringing education to people where they are, I think that’s really brilliant, and it needs to be explored more.

The Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist Program is not a four or two-year degree. It’s more micro, and it’s more targeted and focused on a more specific goal. And you know, if you want to get yourself into a transitional role, and when you’re coming from a place where you’ve been underserved, and where your connection to your land and and community has been ignored, it’s a huge ask to go to Edmonton, or Montreal, or Guelph. So what Palette Skills is doing is saying we can come to you, and we’ll give you very good basics that are both amenable and receivable by industry. That’s really important, because what industry is really good at is giving in-house and on-the-job training. But they need to have people with some familiarity. And this program from Palette Skills is an opportunity to bring people in, to get them comfortable, so they can take the next step.

What I see is that Palette Skills is trying to cross that digital divide that still exists between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous community. And despite all the great things we’re hearing about technology like vertical farming in cities, agriculture is always going to be primarily something that takes place in rural communities, and so we need to bring this kind of education to people where they live. If we’re going to build resiliency and sustainability in our food system, than it has to be on the land, and it has to be about people. It has to be people-based.

Ultimately, not every Indigenous community is going to choose the path of agriculture, but for those who decide to take it on, it’s a real opportunity to build what I’m calling economic reconciliation. From where I am, in agriculture, we want to get as many people on the wagon as possible, and get people talking about all of the challenges and opportunities in agriculture going forward. So the more people we have on the wagon, the better it’s going to be for all of us.

Looking to start your digital agriculture career? Check out the digital agriculture technology program by Palette Skills.

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