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Opinion: Sask. at the centre of a world-class ag innovation hub

Silicon Valley creates more wealth per person than most countries. Imagine if Canada was home to an agricultural equivalent, a global destination for people and investment in farming innovations.
 
Saskatchewan has many of the key ingredients: a diverse and talented workforce, an entrepreneurial class and local investors, government policies and initiatives that foster a culture of innovation.
 
It also has the willpower. I encountered it during the recent launch in Saskatoon of a major research paper by RBC examining the skills needed to build Canadian agriculture in the digital age. The report, Farmer 4.0, explores the impact of tech, and the opportunity to create a global hub here.
 
It will take plenty of capital and people, but some assets are in place. Innovation Saskatchewan is an effective catalyst and partner for entrepreneurs with exportable solutions. Sask Polytech, the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan also play a vital role in preparing the next generation to thrive in a rapidly evolving industry.
 
The Protein Industries Supercluster reflects the province’s existing expertise and future potential to increase the value of Canadian produce and solutions. More than 4,500 jobs and approximately $4.5 billion will be injected into the national economy in the coming decade, according to one estimate.
 
To sustain and grow our global status as an agricultural innovator, pressing challenges must be addressed. Our share of global exports is falling. Farm productivity is stalling. If our exports continue to slip, we’ll find it tougher to attract people and investments.
 
We must address a severe Canadian labour shortage that could result in 123,000 jobs unfilled by 2030. Left unchecked, it will impede our ability to compete and grow in global markets.
 
Untapped sources can help alleviate this shortage. Almost 25 per cent of Saskatchewan youth identify as Indigenous. More on-reserve agriculture training would help, and efforts by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to build bridges with Indigenous peoples are an important step.
 
The federal government should also reduce barriers to high-skilled agricultural immigration, and consider a dedicated service channel under the Global Skills Strategy. Industry groups can coordinate efforts to attract and retain more under-represented groups.
 
We also need to rethink the way we prepare the next generation. Six Canadian universities rank in the top 100 agriculture and forestry programs globally, but we live in an age of rapid technological change. What students learn in their first year of post-secondary may not apply when they graduate. We need a better approach to lifelong learning and a continuous approach to new skills.
 
The skill base extends beyond traditional teachings. There is a need for agriculture managers with experience in human resources and integrated systems management, and more exposure to programs in finance, engineering and environmental studies.
 
Canada also needs to find new ways to commercialize technology. Almost 70 percent of machinery used on our farms comes from other countries. To work with these technologies, we in essence import the skills and knowledge that come with them. Our training, research — even our job descriptions — are designed around imported technologies.
 
Data is one of the most important tools producers now use. Understandably, there is some reticence among producers about who owns it, and how this data can be collected and shared. Insights from anonymized data could reap huge competitive advantage in building a global hub, but it can’t happen without an industry-wide governance standard that ensures producers’ best interests are upheld.
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