The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! New episodes every two weeks.
Episode 001 - Farmers, innovators! And how good ideas spread.
Interview with Julie Dawson, a beef specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and who is also a sixth generation farmer. Listen in on this fascinating discussion about how much farming has and is changing, and how fast.
Kirk: Welcome to our ground double zero episode of our new podcast series—The First Sixteen. I’m your co-host Kirk Finken.
Sara: I am your other co-host, Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: We are your soon-to-be-favorite federal public servants. Here to serve you with inspiration and insights into farming and food.
Sara: We work with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Kirk: In this series, we’ll be interviewing scientists, brainiacs and agents of change in the agriculture and food sector.
Sara: Today, we’re talking about innovation diffusion.
Kirk: And we have a great interview with a sixth generation farmer who will share with you the dynamics of innovation on a farm today.
Sara: I just love this subject. Innovation diffusion!
Kirk: I know! It’s not just about new technologies, ideas and techniques. It’s how they spread from one person to the other, from one farm to the next. It’s like a crash course in human history and evolution. This is the real story, the original story of human development!
Sara: Now, you’re exaggerating.
Kirk: No. No. This is deep stuff.
Sara: Okay, here’s your shovel. Let’s see you dig into this.
Kirk: Arguably, farming was the original innovation, okay. It started happening about 15,000 years ago in different places around the world. People came up with the brilliant idea to plant seeds and tend to them. They domesticated animals and tended to them. And others around them saw what was happening and did the same. Went from tending to trending.
Sara: The word we use in French for trend is tendances. Sounds like tending and trending. So, you are saying that innovation diffusion started a long time ago.
Kirk: In a big way! And it very diverse parts of the world, sort of at the same time. In Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. They grew the seeds. The plants grew. Grains, fruit, veggies. And badabing, less calories expended for more calories gained -- you get abundance and efficiency! Innovation, baby!
Sara: They had more food, more energy, more time. And that gave them time for mathematics, storytelling, music and dance. I see how this evolved. Dance parties! And you know what happens at a dance party, right?
Kirk: Fun stuff. And people get to talking. They share ideas and…
Sara: …they told two friends. And then they told two friends. And voila!
Kirk: Exactly! Innovation diffusion. Everyone got into this fantastic new thing called farming because they went to the dance and shared their ideas.
Sara: And then people started storing food.
Kirk: More innovation.
Sara: Then, they developed new tools for managing soil and water and seeds and animals.
Kirk: And animals worked with us. We fed them. We cared for them. They plowed.
Sara: Symbiosis. And more music and dance parties.
Kirk: Uh huh. So, that’s how it all started.
Sara: What about today?
Kirk: Well, same cow dung, different era. Roughly 15 thousand years of innovation diffusion later. And today we are speaking with the modern descendent of those original farmers.
Sara: But she’s very different…
Kirk: Yes and no. She wears nicer clothes. She has a bigger farm. Her technology is a whole lot more sophisticated. But, I dare say her passion is the same as those original sowers of grain and herders of livestock.
Julie: Hi, I'm Julie Dawson and you're listening to The First Sixteen.
Kirk: Julie Dawson is a beef sector specialist here at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Sara: Beyond that, she and her husband, Andrew, own and operate River Run Farms, which is located just outside of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Their farm has been in her family for six generations.
Julie: We currently farm with my two children – our son and our daughter -- and we run about 800 acres of crops and then also have a beef cow operation. And so, market retail the beef right through from birth right through to finish of those beef animals. And so, we also have interaction with the consuming public.
Sara: Wow. That is one busy family and woman.
Kirk: And the insights that she has on farming and innovation – at the farm, regional, national and international level… Let’s just say she is a gem of a public servant and has such deep knowledge of this sector.
Julie Dawson: they were all about survival. They were about providing food for their family, trying to clear land, subsistence farming is really what it was. And now we've transitioned to a business of farming. And so, it's really about driving a profit, driving efficiency, and part of that is how can we use innovation to drive that efficiency.
I think that's where the biggest transition was from my grandparents to where we are now. My parents were very much employed off the farm, and really again, just trying to keep the farm going. And we've transitioned to my husband being on the farm full time.
So, he's really invested in the farm operation and that being things like attending courses. So, today he's attending a crop conference. That's really to enhance his knowledge of things that we can do to increase yields, reduce some of our compaction, things like that on the farm.
Kirk: Did you catch that?
Sara: Sounded like a nice picture of a family farm.
Kirk: Yeah, but let’s break it down. Because just in that short moment, Julie illustrated for us that innovation diffusion in farming happens in four ways… Between generations, Between economic models, Between outside influencers and, lastly, with the actual techniques and tools themselves.
Sara: It’s complex. Maybe you weren’t exaggerating.
Kirk: I never exaggerate.
Sara: It’s socio-economics, biology, psychology, science, engineering, anthropology, business, social history, all in one.
Kirk: And it is all happening around the hub of farming and food.
Juilie: My grandfather was of the generation where he was using horses and horse-drawn equipment. The first tractor came onto the farm and he was driving the tractor, and when he approached a fence line, in that particular instance normally horses would turn, and he approached the fence line on the tractor and was yelling whoa, whoa, and had a bit of a crash, because of that. So, that's that transition that we think is something easy, but really, it's over generations. And certainly, we see innovation, and probably more so in our generation, where things are moving so rapidly with respect to technology. We’re adapting our farm business to technologies that are out there. So, that's a very different way of thinking. For example, we will very likely see autonomous tractors in my lifetime. Currently they're available in large scale operations, but we will very likely see that. So, it's a mind shift into how to look at technologies; how can it benefit you, as opposed to being afraid of what it might be. Currently on our operation we're managing things in larger sections of land, but we're managing them at a very micro level. So, we're looking at things from using satellites; using imagery that's right back into the farm vehicle or the tractor itself to help us grow better crops and increase yields. So, it's having that big view, but also having a very, very small management-size view as well. So, yeah, we see innovation in everything that we do, from things like using social media to tell others what we might be doing, or to look at what others are doing. We use other pieces that are involved in our daily lives, from gathering information from conferences. We don't read the newspaper very much anymore, which is something that my father and grandfather did do. So, we're getting information in very different ways, and very rapid sources.
Kirk: But what about at the community level? That’s still the fabric of rural Canada – the exchange of information at the local level. Right?
Julie: Communities and rural communities to this day are still very much built on neighbours and talking and communication in personal ways. And while we rely on that to a small extent, we also are very much reliant on people that we don't know. People that are not in our immediate community. People that might be on the other side of the country; might be in another country, and so we're communicating with them to understand what worked for their operation. So, I think our map just became that much larger of our community, and that's the main difference from my, say, grandparents’ time.
Kirk: And, what was the cycle of innovation for your grandparents? Was it every decade? And how is that compared to the cycle of innovation that you and Andrew experience?
Dawson: I think a change for them might have been something like using a tractor or mechanized equipment. For them, that might have been the only change that they saw in their farming career, whereas ourselves we may see changes every year or two. Every growing season we're trying something new, and so those all build up to having a very complex farming operation. And so, that's just again very different from how they may have just taken a small risk and taken on that piece of equipment or -- because that generally tended to be what it was in their time -- and so, we're maybe making changes every year, every growing season.
Kirk: Is that exciting or is that scary?
Dawson: It's both. Yeah, it is exciting, because I think the world offers a very great array of technology and I think we're just on the very cusp of it in agriculture. You know, and I think there's huge opportunity there providing for that, but it's also risky because sometimes it might be technology that's used in another sector or another avenue, and so it might be newly applied in agriculture. However, it's almost endless possibilities. And so, I'm encouraging our children, which our son is 16 and our daughter is 14, I'm encouraging them to really keep their eyes open about the opportunities that agriculture offers, because it's really not about the farming of my grandparents or my parents, it's a very different world of farming and all the opportunities that it provides.
Kirk: So, how do you evaluate new innovations? Who and what are some of the influencers in that different world?
Dawson: Yeah, no, good question, and certainly I think it's evaluating with a recognition that it may not be exactly the same in Canada; if we’re looking at another country, for example. I know there's a lot of large farms in the southern United States, for example. And so, through social media again, it's almost an awareness of what's going on, and maybe a twigging of something in your mind that might be interesting to think about to try, and then you keep your options open, so that if that technology or something comes to Canada, you think, oh yes, okay, I'm aware of that. I heard of that.
So, I think it's about evaluating it very carefully, but also an awareness of, again some of those things that might be coming, may not be in Canada, may not be available this year or next year, but it might be on the horizon. So, certainly, yes, a cautious optimism, I think, is how I would term it.
Kirk: Can you give me maybe a couple of examples of new things that have come into your practice on the farm in let's say the last few years?
Dawson: AAFC: Yeah, So, one of them is when we spread fertilizer -- and so that's really to assist in plant growth and to help with the soil microbes and the soil environment -- what we used to do is we would simply analyse what was required in that field and then spread the fertilizer across the whole field. Now we use what's called zone mapping. So, we have specific zones in the field where it might be really low in potassium, for example. So, we will simply put that into our mapping system. And so, when the machine that is spreading the fertilizer, when it hits that area, it will specifically apply to that particular area, maybe not the rest of the field. So that's really about a management system, and again it comes back to efficiency, but it also comes back to sustainability, being environmentally conscious, and those things are all tied together. So, certainly zone mapping is one.
Another one that's new for us is using drones. So, we are using drones now to crop scout. So, looking at our field conditions from that level, we're also able to look for wildlife damage and we're also going to use it this summer for checking our beef cattle herd. And, again, that's really just a hands-off way of verifying that things are under control in a situation that we would expect it to be.
Kirk: What she said next, was a really cool angle that I didn’t expect. But which makes sense.
Sara: What was it?
Kirk: She came back to the generational shift.
Julie: So, what the technology has allowed us to do is it really has added our children into our farm environment. And so, by doing that, because they have grown up with devices and different things like that, they are not afraid at all of different technologies, mapping systems; those kinds of things that we, maybe my husband and I didn't grow up with, and so for us it's been a learning curve, but for them it's really just something that comes very innately to them.
And so, my son, for example, it's his drone, and so he will use that for flying and making observations on our crops and our cattle. And so, that's really allowed them to be a very integral part of our operation on a level that's very different. And so, they are, like I said, not afraid to work that equipment; those mapping systems within the tractors; a lot of them have monitors now and so for them it’s just second nature.
Kirk: Very cool stuff. But, I also read recently a study from our Research and Analysis Division, that the top area where producers are being most innovative is in safety.
Sara: Really? That’s odd isn’t it?
Kirk: Not really. I told Julie about that study. Here’s her response..
Dawson: That's right, and so you're exactly right. Equipment now is very, very large, very technical and very powerful. And so, I think, certainly I can speak from our business model, we've actually incorporated safety into our business planning. And so, from that, because as I mentioned at the start, it really is a business. And so, like any business it really needs to look out for its employees and be on the side of caution. And so, with that, we are now looking at installing fire extinguishers where we didn't have them before. Eyewash stations, things like that, which you may not find on sort of a farm from 30 or 40 years ago.
So, absolutely safety, number one priority. Our employees get briefed on safety procedures – what to do, what not to do. And there's written instructions in farm vehicles, tractors, combines, to tell people what to do in certain situations. And that really goes down to it's our family business, but it does employ others, and so we want everyone to enjoy their experience working for us, but also be safe at the same time. And so, while I'm surprised that that was maybe the top priority, from our own business sense I can understand that.
Sara: This is a great portrait of all those layers of innovation on a farm operation. But, Julie has that other hat she wears, right? She’s a federal public servant, a beef sector specialist.
Kirk: Totally. And she shared some her insights about innovation from that level, too.
Dawson: Yeah, so, and the beef sector is very different than the crop sector. And the beef industry and the beef sector are very much based on tradition. It's a very traditional way of raising animals. It's very much focused on the land. The nature aspect, the environmental aspect of beef production. And so, we see a lot less innovation on that side. Not to say that there aren't opportunities, but I think it's a lot easier to retrofit or modify a piece of machinery as opposed to the livestock themselves.
So, they really are beings that exist, and we manage how they function; what they eat, how they reproduce, that type of thing. And so, I think efficiencies are on a much smaller scale. Innovations, I mean, are on a much smaller scale on the livestock side, but certainly as a beef sector specialist, I think I see innovation as borrowing technologies from other sectors for the livestock industry.
So, for example as I mentioned, drones are using that for assessing animal welfare and animal health out on rangelands. We also have something... each of the animals in Canada is required to have a radio identification tag. So, I think there's an opportunity there to use that technology, whether it be from satellite images, again, from monitoring animal health. So, I think again, we're just barely dipping our toe into the pond of opportunities for innovation, albeit recognizing that it's not as far advanced as it is on the crop side of things. The genomic side of things has real potential. I think we're just at a little bit of a boundary between a very technical aspect of agriculture and then relating that to producers. So, it's really about that communication or that extension of how that can benefit an operation or a farm business and relaying that message to producers. But, yeah, absolutely we have increased the genetic potential of the Canadian beef herd through genomics.
Kirk: I totally loved talking with Julie. At the end, I asked, like, when she sits on her back porch, looking out over their beautiful farm – does she think about innovation.
Dawson: I can't say we spend a lot of time sitting on our back porch, but if we imagine that we did that, then we certainly... we reflect absolutely on the innovation that we've included in our business, and I think, as I expressed, the excitement that it allows us to think about what the future might hold. You know, I consider us to be young-ish farmers. we certainly are excited about what it brings, and maybe just... yeah, the opportunities that lie before us. And I think a lot of times … we’re growing food for others, the average producer feeds up to 200 consumers.
And so, that's a mind shift to think about, how we can be efficient? How can we be sustainable by using the latest technologies and not being afraid to use those? And I think there are, if I talk about my government role as a beef sector specialist, there are a number of programs under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership that allow producers to provide some of that risk and moderate some of that risk by providing some funding for projects, certainly on the innovation side.
Kirk: Nice. What's the most exciting innovation that you have seen whether it's on your farm or in your region or in Canada in farming in recent years? What are some of those things?
Dawson: Yeah, there's more than one. So, if we talk about autonomous tractors. So, the... as we talk about labour and the inability to either find labour or have labour that is willing to work the amount of hours that are required, for example, in spring planting when a day might be 18 hours in length, it's hard to find labour. So, autonomous vehicles – absolutely. We're talking about specific zone... specific targeting of weeds. So, for example, instead of doing broadcast of sprays or herbicides, we now might be able to pinpoint weeds exactly and just be able to eliminate that particular species. So that's exciting.
We have autonomous -- DOT is the name of the autonomous vehicle that is now responsible for planting and seeding acres. Again, that's completely done remotely. So, I think there's a lot of exciting opportunities and they're just starting right, so it's a matter of bringing it back to that farm production level as opposed to being focused on the research side of things. But just so many opportunities.
Kirk: And when your husband Andrew goes to attend these conferences, he is obviously immersed in the share of ideas and innovations. What does he bring back?
Dawson: He brings back ideas. He brings back all of the excitement and the things that are possible. Albeit some of them are not feasible at this particular time. Some of them are large scale or research oriented, but really the opportunity that exists and the want or the desire to not be afraid to take that risk.
Kirk: Yeah, it's a really exciting sector to be working in, for us to be observing and telling the stories about. You know, it’s just like, it’s everyday it's a surprise. Every week it’s just like, really? We’re doing that. That’s so much fun.
Dawson: Yeah, and I think sometimes the public is very much invested in that interest of a little red barn with a couple of cows and some fields in the background. And I think we have to make the shift to consumers that farming is a business. It's a very efficient business, and there's a lot of opportunities to incorporate mechanisation. You know, whether it be technology, whether it be some sort of breeding modification or whatever it might be, whatever inputs we might need, then I think that's the shift that we need to show to consumers that changes that have happened on the farm and that transition, because it really is a very different farm than it was even 30 years ago.
Kirk: It's your grandfather's farm, but it's not his farm anymore.
Dawson: Absolutely. It looks like his farm, until you open up the barn door or until you look inside, and you understand the amount of computers and technology that exists inside a piece of equipment, it's a very different farm.
Kirk: So, I hear that there's a new innovation coming out and they're going to expand the length of a day from 24 hours to 26 or 28. Are you down with that?
Dawson: No, as much as the farm is a very busy place, and especially coming up with April and the end of March on the horizon, it's a very busy time. And so, our period of busyness starts in about March and goes right through until about December. So, we're busy this time of year actually catching up on paperwork, attending conferences. So, a lot of conferences are going on in the agriculture world this time of year, bringing producers up to speed on what might be the next thing in line for this planting and growing season. And so, yes, it's kind of a never-ending field of work, but we really enjoy it and we wouldn't do it if we didn't.
Sara: I think she just avoided your question.
Kirk: Yup. No time for shenanigans, that Julie. I like her.
Sara: And are we going to answer that burning question that everyone asks us?
Kirk: Ohh. Right.
Sara: Everyone wants us to explain the First Sixteen. What does the name of our series signify?
Kirk: Look, do a Google search for this guy… Everett Rogers. He was a sociologist who studied how innovations spread from farm to farm. Read up on his theory of innovation diffusion.
Sara: So, check out his theory. He used his data to break down farmers into five categories of people. Add up the first two categories – the Innovators and the First Adopters.
Kirk: Together they add up to the leading 16 percent, the first sixteen. This series is about them, but specifically in agriculture and food. And it is for the Early Majority category.
Sara: It’s for any folks who like to keep it fresh, who like new ideas, who love farming and food. If you count yourself in those groups, you are going to love this series.
Kirk: Totally. Be sure to subscribe.
Sara: Yes. And until next time… you know what to do?
Together: Try something new.
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