Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture


A new report calls on Canada to adopt a new mix of farm skills that is more data-focused, innovation-minded and diverse.


John Stackhouse
Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO

A fourth agricultural revolution is underway, and this one isn’t powered by seeds or diesel. It’s all about data.

As Canadian farmers leave traditional tasks to smart machines, and focus on strategy and systems, they’ll be better positioned than ever to feed a fast-growing global population. But to do that, they’ll need a wide range of new skills, as well as enhanced old skills, that Canada isn’t developing anywhere near fast enough.

According to Farmer 4.0, a new RBC report, the country could be short critical skills – data analysis, robotics and global sales, among them – that will be needed to transform the sector across a projected shortage of 123,000 agricultural workers by 2030. However, with the correct skills mix, agriculture could add another $11 billion to Canada’s GDP and make the sector more productive than auto manufacturing and aerospace combined.

Farmer 4.0 is the result of a four-month study by researchers and economists on the changing skills demands in agriculture, which combines data analysis with interviews with people on the front lines of the farming revolution.

The report found that Canadian farmers are at the intersection of a demographic and technological revolution. By 2025, one in four farmers will be 65 or older, with 110,000 expected to retire in the coming decade. Meanwhile, fewer young people than ever are entering agriculture.

Farmer 4.0 also analyzed the emergence of advanced technologies across a range of agricultural sub-sectors, and found they will not reduce employment in the near term but will change the skills needed over the decade by farms, aquaculture, vineyards and greenhouses.

The report found 14 percent of producers automated tasks last year, and the sector spent four times as much per worker on machinery as the overall economy did. But even though 95 percent of large producers reported using advanced technologies, Canada’s share of agtech investment was just 3.4 percent in 2018.

Using a model of skills clusters developed in Humans Wanted, a 2018 report from RBC, Farmer 4.0 presents five categories of agriculture workers that will be affected in very different ways by technology:

  • The most critical group, farm owners and operators that we’ve described as “deciders,” will need the digital expertise, leadership abilities and critical thinking skills to manage ever-larger and more complex operations.
  • A second group of skilled workers who service farm equipment will need to focus on increasingly smart machines, meaning they’ll have to develop the technological skills to tool robots and write code. The report estimates Canada will need another 25,000 such people, known as “enablers,” with software knowledge, business acumen and communications skills.
  • A third group known as “specialists,” with a particular knowledge of scientific fields such as genetics, blockchain and artificial intelligence, will create 18,000 more jobs.

One of the biggest challenges for policymakers will be among low-skilled labour roles, which are projected to account for 85,000 of the total shortages by 2030. The demand for such positions, which include fruit picking and planting, will become more acute in the short term – and more automatable in the long term. The transition will require a new approach to immigration and reskilling, among other policies.

Farmer 4.0 highlights innovations in countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Israel, where agriculture education is at the cutting edge of those countries’ innovation agendas, and calls on Canada to adopt a new mix of farm skills that is more data-focused, innovation-minded and diverse. Among the recommendations in the report is a national skills strategy, including a push for more young people to enter the sector.

Agriculture will be central to Canada’s future health and prosperity. With the right mix of skills and technologies, Canadian farmers can help feed the world and grow Canada’s economy.

Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture. Download it here

Listen to the two-part RBC Disruptors podcast on the coming agricultural skills revolution on Apple Podcasts, Google or Soundcloud.

As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John Stackhouse advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, Stackhouse spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. He is the author of three books and has a fourth underway.

RBC Wealth Management is a business segment of Royal Bank of Canada. Please click the “Legal” link at the bottom of this page for further information on the entities that are member companies of RBC Wealth Management. The content in this publication is provided for general information only and is not intended to provide any advice or endorse/recommend the content contained in the publication.

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John Stackhouse

Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO

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