Research for the real world: why a Manitoba farmer opened up his 6,000-acre farm and turned it into an industry testing ground

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New technologies may work in the lab or in a research setting, but can they provide value in the real-world on a modern, large-scale commercial farm?

That’s the basic premise behind a unique arrangement that has come to be known as “Innovation Farms,” just northwest of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Grosse Isle-area farmer and long-time seed grower Rick Rutherford has opened up Rutherford Farms to industry, government, and academic partners, turning his six thousand acre grain farm northwest of Winnipeg into a massive testing ground for companies looking to prove and commercialize their new products and technologies in a real-world environment.

Partners that are conducting or contributing to research on the farm include Farm Credit Canada’s AgExpert software group, John Deere, equipment dealer Enns Brothers, and Access Credit Union. Dozens of other start-ups and developers also have a presence on the farm under the umbrella of the government-backed Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative, better known as EMILI.

“The EMILI group has been working on our farm for three years. They had a vision of a ‘smart farm’ in Manitoba,” explains Rutherford, in the video below. “For all the new technologies that are coming out, we want it to be able to prove on a commercial basis…if the thing can’t work on a commercial farm, why are we beating ourselves down that path?”

EMILI joined the Pan-Canadian Smart Farm Network, the group of research and testing farms across Canada led by Olds College in Alberta, this past spring. Concrete crews were pouring the floor for an office and shop — the new physical home of EMILI — on the main farmyard while Rutherford and the EMILI group hosted a tour focused on 4R nutrient stewardship earlier this month.

As for why he has chosen to pursue this unique level of partnership with outside stakeholders, which, for example, has included opening up the last 10 years of the farm’s field data and books, Rutherford says he sees a competitive advantage to having an early understanding of new technologies. He also sees value in debunking claims before an ineffective product or technology hits the market.

“Some of this stuff coming to the table, some of which has a ton of government investment in it, we think may not be practical, or it has no commercial viability. And one of the things that we kind of maintain, so far, we’ll see how it goes, is that we can call some of this stuff out,” says Rutherford.

Check out the interview below with Rick Rutherford for more on the unique Innovation Farms arrangement and what he hopes comes out of it, recorded at the 4R field day hosted by EMILI on August 9, 2023:

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