The Other Ag Sector Problem That Big Data Can Solve

The average city-poke thinks about farm labor as the last of a dying breed of worker — replaced by $700,000 combines and all sorts of fancy technology that enables a farmer to do more than granddad imagined, and with little dust or manure involved. Things have changed.

What has not changed is the need for farm worker management and safety. There is a recognition that farms are evolving into corporations with increased complexity of management and liability for worker safety. Agriculture is the third most hazardous industry in Canada. As of 2010, an average of 114 people were killed and 1,499 seriously injured every year on Canadian farms.

While heavy machinery continues to be the main cause of injuries and fatalities, today’s workers use toxic chemicals and handle 1,500-lb animals, as well as combustible materials and automation equipment, all with varied experience and training. They are also exposed to a good measure of time pressure, stress and fatigue. For most of us, this isn’t a daily concern. Unlike a raging bull, my computer would never charge at me.

Health and safety for farm operations are largely unregulated in North America, and to some extent even less so in Europe. China? Russia? South America? Forget it. Current regulations are inconsistent. Across Canada, provinces have different laws in this regard. Farm workers are not currently included under the current occupational health and safety legislation and are not eligible for workers’ compensation.

There also is another subset of farm worker: temporary or seasonal manual laborers — more commonly found in North American regions where high-value vegetable crops and fruits are produced — who do not qualify for labor regulations under current legislation.

In the U.S., half of the states “provide little to no workers’ compensation coverage to migrant and seasonal workers.” However, changes to on-farm health and safety regulations are beginning to be considered. Our government in Alberta, for example, is on record as kicking off a review of farm labor regulation, which was announced just this year with the election of the NDP government. Furthermore with increasing public awareness of workers’ rights due to migrant worker incidents in the media, public pressure for increased protections will likely only increase.

Many farms in North America are still family owned and managed. In Canada, the average farmer is 54, so with the retiring of the owner/operator in the next 10-15 years, the management of farming will change drastically in North America. This means a second challenge is afoot, which is addressing productivity and liability challenges: from having non-owner farm workers, to managing labor throughout big farm operations.

Around the world, 500 million farms are family managed and operated — a number which equates to 98 percent of the world’s farms: this includes 96.4 percent in the U.S., 98 percent in Canada and 99 percent in Australia. In New Zealand, only 1.24 percent of farms have ownership from public companies. While each farm can decide whether to implement strict safety regulations, legislation protecting farm workers is scarce and can fall by the wayside, especially depending on the manpower available and the scale of the farm operations.

Farmers can harness data technologies to better operate their farm not only when it comes to crops and livestock, but also for managing their workforce.

It’s fine for regulations to change, but the crux of the issue for the employer-farmer is more complex. How do you track your workers and manage their activities to: 1) be compliant with the law, 2) maximize productivity and job satisfaction and, 3) ensure worker safety (minimize liability exposure), with a simple, low-cost methodology? Maybe you don’t, at least immediately. But over time, sooner or later it will become necessary to find a way where technology can assist. This is where innovative technology companies can come in.

The use of sensors, big data, drones and similar data-related technology have already been gaining much traction on the farm, specifically in the application of precision agriculture. Farmers are well aware now that data analytics can be used a number of ways — now the opportunity exists to be applied to farm labor management with an emphasis on looming regulatory compliance, potentially in near term, but with more value add to be realized in delivered worker productivity and cost control.

There is an opportunity for innovators to develop or take existing technology and apply it to farm labor management. Farmers can use sensors to monitor and track their workers in the field, in a scalable and cost-efficient manner. For example, farmers might contemplate the use of the following technologies for a number of productivity benefits:

  • GPS locators: know where workers are at all times; manage where more (or less) manpower is needed on the farm; schedule work; plan contingencies; pay for individual performance
  • Fitness trackers: measure workers’ activities and actions to help balance workload; help prevent worker injury in strenuous tasks

Using data gathered from the above scenarios, farmers can also gain more insight into their labor needs and learn more about when and where they need to add (or subtract) workers throughout the year. They also can learn more about worker habits, and create safety strategies specific to their farm based on what is more useful or relevant to their operations.

The technology already exists for farmers to take advantage of; it just needs to be applied to the management of farm workers, and someone needs to provide farmers with the tools to do so. It ultimately comes down to the smartphone — as long as the battery is good and an encounter with a cow or water doesn’t end its use.

Although there are concerns about the privacy and surveillance aspect of monitoring employees, the applications to agricultural operations can be adjusted specifically for what would be most valued by farmers and farm managers. The big-data application is the same in other industries: define, gather, analyze, report, act. Farmers can harness data technologies to better operate their farm not only when it comes to crops and livestock, but also for managing their workforce.