Ottawa bets on NCC farm as future precision agriculture hub

Autonomous tractors, data-collecting drones among technologies poised to transform sector
City of Ottawa graphic
Graphic courtesy of the City of Ottawa.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of OBOT Connect.

Local tech firms, politicians and economic development officials are pushing to turn the Greenbelt Research Farm in south Nepean into an R&D centre for the emerging field of precision agriculture.

In 2017, Ottawa was part of a bid for “supercluster” funding aimed at accelerating growing sectors in Canada, which saw a total of $950 million split between five groups. The national bid included a plan to turn the National Capital Commission’s Greenbelt Research Farm – bordered by Woodroffe Avenue and West Hunt Club, Fallowfield and Greenbank roads – into a testbed for agricultural technology.

Though the bid didn’t make it to the finish line, several of its stakeholders are ploughing forward with another bid, this time for funding from the government’s Strategic Innovation Fund. 

This particular funding will see one successful group receive between $10 million and $50 million for projects focused on automation and digital technologies in the agriculture and agri-food sector. 

Ottawa city councillor Jan Harder, who was an advocate for the first supercluster bid, says the city – along with Invest Ottawa, agri-tech startup The Growcer and others – have joined partners in Alberta to form Canada’s Farm to Table Agritech Network.

The bid will see a similar proposal: to turn the former research farm into a national testbed for agricultural technology such as autonomous tractors and data-collecting drones.

Harder says she believes Ottawa has the opportunity to play a significant role in developing emerging agricultural technologies.

 “We want to support growing practices that consumers want,” says Harder.

“We have an obligation, we believe, to farmers and Canadians.”

Communications tech

The farm, which was previously used for livestock and poultry research, is already home to the private autonomous vehicle testbed currently being developed.

Michael Tremblay, the president and CEO of Invest Ottawa, says testing autonomous farm vehicles on this 16-kilometre track will be a natural fit, but the bid – due March 9 – is aimed at doing much more.

With 25 buildings sitting unused from the farm’s previous research projects, Tremblay hopes the land will soon be used to test cutting-edge agricultural technology.

Ottawa’s contribution to the field of precision agriculture includes its strong communications technology base, says Tremblay, adding that connectivity will be key to making emerging agricultural technology work in rural farming areas.

“There’s a big opportunity (for Ottawa) in terms of making available communications technologies in those remote areas,” he says.

Geraldine Wildman, program manager with the city’s rural affairs and economic development departments, says precision agriculture was identified in Ottawa’s latest economic strategy as a key area of focus. Ottawa is also a partner with the Agri-East Lowlands initiative (AEL), which aims to bring together producers and researchers from across the region.

“Our goal (is to create) an innovation hub that ... encourages collaboration from across industry and not-for-profit and government sectors,” says Wildman.

The possibility of a precision agriculture research hub is an attractive one for Barrhaven and Nepean, which could stand to benefit from increased economic activity nearby. 

A 2016 economic analysis of Barrhaven by consulting firm Doyletech identified agriculture and agri-tech as a key sector to focus on for the area, according to Barrhaven BIA executive director Andrea Steenbakkers.

“We’re really the hub where rural connects with urban,” she says.

The BBIA is also a partner in the AEL, which Steenbakkers says hopes to contribute to future work being done on the farm by helping connect rural producers with researchers.

“Everybody needs to start working together to brand the area as being rich and innovative in agricultural technology,” she says. “It’s just not known yet.”