The MacLellans can pinpoint the moment their farm in Kensington, Prince Edward Island, underwent a significant change: spring 2009. That’s when the family tractors were outfitted with GPS. “You can take someone with less experience, throw them in the tractor, and the tractor drives itself,” says Bevin MacLellan.

At twenty-four, Bevin is the youngest son of the family and works on the property with his older brother, Rylan. Together, the men will eventually inherit the farm, the ninth generation of the MacLellans to do so. They farm potatoes, barley, and wheat on a three-year crop rotation and have a crew of about eleven employees outside of the family. The MacLellans can trace their farming history back to roughly 1790, when their forebears broke ground on sixty acres. Each generation has since brought something new to the operation, a different set of ideas to boost productivity, starting with the first MacLellan to hitch his plow to a horse. Bevin, who studied plant sciences in university, is the agronomics guy, looking at new fertilizer formulations and seed mixes; Rylan, with a diploma in agriculture business, deals with the machinery. Alongside their father and grandfather, they plan the planting, cultivating, and harvesting. But while farming is still a physical job, the men know they live in an era where more and more of it can be done on smartphones, using apps that run extensive irrigation networks or receive real-time analysis of soil health and nutrient levels.

Bevin and Rylan get excited about the possibilities of tech to make their farming smarter, more strategic, but given the costs, the brothers have to be selective. No shots in the dark; additions to the farm have to be proven. “There’s always someone coming in your driveway, trying to sell you something,” Rylan says. Everything comes back to efficiency. How many tasks can you squeeze out of a day? How much faster can you move? GPS in the tractors doesn’t just mean that a specialized crew member might be freed up to work more demanding jobs. It means that, by moving perfectly up and down the rows, the tractor shaves off precious seconds every time it traverses the field. The family can thus get more done with a single machine. As the farm grows, they rely increasingly on these kinds of hacks, wringing more out of each day than the previous one.

At 1,800 acres, their farm has tripled in size from the time their grandfather, Kenny, seventy-four, took charge in the 1970s. He brought his son, Billy, on board in the early 1990s, and the operation has since expanded the way many farming families have—by buying up parcels of adjoining land after those neighbours aged out of the field. With costs being so high, one of the ways independent farmers can reliably make a profit is through sheer volume. “Unless you’re into something that’s a really specialized thing, and you found a market for it, you will not make a living off of that farm,” Kenny explains, Bevin nodding in agreement. “You can’t afford not to grow with the rest of them,” says Bevin. “They’ll out-compete you.”

One day, the young men hope to sit in their grandfather’s and father’s chairs, watching future generations of MacLellan farmers. Their ultimate goal for the farm, and the family’s legacy, is to maintain their success. For that, they have to keep growing. “People think you’re still putting the same kind of seed in the ground,” says Rylan, “you’re still growing the same crop at the same time of the year with the same type of equipment.” But the moment you stop evolving with the industry is the moment you fall behind. They’ll have to bring on more tech to survive.

An image of farmers persists. Mom and Pop, likely white, smile in well-worn overalls and plaid shirts, big red barn behind them. Horses or cows are nearby. They get up with the sun, tend animals and the crops by hand. It’s romantic, unsophisticated, a haven for Luddites.

It’s also completely false. (Except the race part. Only 3.7 percent of Canadian farmers, according to the 2021 census, belong to a racialized group.) Farmers are among the earliest of early adopters, always ready to experiment in the name of efficiency. The first steam-powered combine harvesters arrived in North America in the 1880s, and the first tractors were widely introduced in the early 1900s. Wind energy may be used to power homes now, but American homesteads relied on windmills to mill grain and pump water from wells. Satellite imagery became available to farmers as early as 1972, long before Google Earth.

Over the past few decades, tech on farms has become less “nice to have” and more hard reality. According to market research firm MarketsandMarkets, the smart agriculture industry is expected to reach $20.8 billion (US) globally by 2026. The tools currently available span from the discrete—individual gate latches can be pre-programed to open and close animal enclosures at specific times—to devices that seem straight out of a cyberpunk novel. There’s a drone that can disperse fertilizers and seeds. Then there’s a drone that can spy changes in vegetation patterns and help catch disease and pests before they cause significant damage. And then there’s a pesticide-spraying robot that, using on-board solar panels, can cover up to 100 acres a day; it scans the ground for weeds and targets just the area that needs the pesticide.

Automation especially has been a boon to farming. By the time Teslas were on the roads, self-steering systems were already lugging produce to storage facilities. When you’re constantly looking to save time and energy, it’s hard not to see the upside of devices that work around the clock. John Deere, one of North America’s largest agricultural equipment manufacturers, is developing a fully autonomous tractor with the horsepower and capacity to handle vast amounts of land. More than just vehicles outfitted with GPS, these will be machines that don’t need anyone in the driver’s seat. You program the tractor—or several at a time—and send it off in the field, where it will send alerts and updates back to you wirelessly. The device is not yet on the market, and there is no indication yet of what it will cost, but given that the company’s top-line non-autonomous models are marketed at $500,000 (US), even the used ones, it’s likely such robotic fleets will be the domain of large, commercial farms.

But that gap is closing. California-based company Monarch offers an all-electric, “driver optional” model, starting at about $89,000 (US). At that price, the tractor could prove attractive to smaller farms that might see it as a piece of equipment that will pay itself off within a couple of years. The Monarch tractors keep costs down in part by not needing specialized technicians for every repair, leaving some fixes to the farmers, not unlike looking up a recipe on YouTube and following along.

Data collection and analysis have already transformed agriculture. And here the bigger players are intensifying their efforts. McCain Foods, Canada’s largest producer of frozen potato products, acquired a “predictive crop intelligence portfolio” from Resson, a Fredericton-based analytics and tech firm, in 2022. Ingesting data from satellite imagery and sensors, the technology uses algorithms to report on the condition of the potato fields—everything from the state of the moisture to levels of fertilizer, according to one report. The digital approach not only gives McCain farmers an unprecedented overall view of how crops are growing but also helps the company anticipate how many tonnes of potatoes are likely to arrive at facilities. The food giant hints at scaling Resson’s tech even further, extending its prowess to other crops.

And that’s partly why small farms are grabbing onto tech. Global operations already have an edge because of their size; independents need any advantage they can get.

Colin de Moissac looks forward to the day he can bring tech like autonomous tractors to his farm outside Biggar, Saskatchewan. “I can spend more time doing actual work versus driving.” De Moissac farms the same patch of land that his great-grandparents lived on and homesteaded in 1906. He took over the business in 2018, from his father, Rene. Since then, de Moissac has more than tripled the acreage and now oversees 9,400 acres of canola, wheat, peas, lentils, and mustard. He has a dozen employees, working at several nearby sites.

The de Moissacs are one of the lucky families. With only 12 percent of Canadian farms, as of the 2021 census, possessing a written succession plan, the days of small or even medium-sized family farms are coming to an end. In 1941, there were over 700,000 farms. By 1971, fewer than 400,000. In 2001, that number dropped again to just under 250,000. The farms, however, aren’t shrinking. Instead, the average amount of land under them has increased dramatically.

Today, consolidation has led to the smallest number of farms on record in decades. The 2021 census registered just under 190,000 of them, with individual farms producing more than ever. It’s a recipe for burnout. Researchers have found an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression among farmers, with one in four having experienced suicidal ideation. There is even a twenty-four-hour Farm Stress Line for Saskatchewan farmers. Sixty-one percent of farmers in Canada today are over the age of fifty-five. Farms are getting larger, but the people operating them are racing toward retirement, with no clear plan for who will take over.

This shift in farming sets off a cascade of consequences. As medium-scale family farms disappear, the fabric of rural communities changes. Of course, farm consolidation is far from the only cause of rural decline (higher wages, better infrastructure, and education are also driving populations to urban areas), but fewer people living on larger and larger parcels of land means less tax revenue is being pumped into the towns and villages surrounding that farmland. That’s fewer options at the local farmers’ market, fewer sponsors of the local charity half marathons and bake sales, fewer people around in general. Those lands are often sold to industrialized outfits, which rely on monocropping, or farming the same crop on the same plot of land, year after year. Monocropping leaches nutrients from the soil, leaving the farm at a higher risk of disease or infection. Because all the plants fall prey to the same pathogen, one wayward insect and half a field can be wiped out.

Thriving rural communities downshifting from farming hubs to near ghost towns isn’t high on any politician’s list of things to fix, but it’s a reality for many Canadians. As medium-sized farms start disappearing, de Moissac is ready to embrace innovation to sustain our food supply, even with the risks. “The stakes have never been higher to bring in new tech or purchase machinery for the farm,” he says. “With inflation and the high price of equipment, a small error could result in great financial consequences. We only get one chance to get it right every year.”

De Moissac is happy to take that weight off his parents’ shoulders but isn’t immune to the stress. He easily works eighteen hours a day in the high season. From the moment he wakes, he’s confirming that the machines are in the right field, that the employees have the chemicals and the water they need, that service is on track. But before all of that, de Moissac monitors the markets. “It’s in the back of my mind,” he says. “Check the margins, see where it’s at, try and read world news and see—Is Algeria buying wheat? Did the wheat tender go through? Did they reject it? All those things add up, because we sell on a global level now.”

It’s been even more stressful in recent years as fertilizer prices shot through the roof—and mostly stayed there—following sanctions against Russia, a large exporter, for its invasion of Ukraine. De Moissac never anticipated having to factor geopolitical instability into his daily life. “There’s a lot of times I shake my head and just think: Why am I doing this?”

One of the biggest hurdles to entering farming is simply the funds needed. Over 87 percent of farm capital in Canada is land and buildings, and many farmers don’t own anything—they rent. And in many cases, who they rent from aren’t farmers. The US’s largest private owner of farmland—worth an estimated $690 million (US)—is tech billionaire Bill Gates, according to The Land Report.

When Bronwyn Green, a thirty-three-year-old from Winnipeg, wrote up a business plan for a small homestead, she quickly learned how costly it would be. She wanted to grow her own vegetables and have a chicken coop and maybe a few goats. “It’s terrifying how much money it takes to start.” In Manitoba, Green would be looking at a minimum cost of about $2,400 per acre of land, and that’s without anything else attached. No home, no barn, no fencing, no shed. She could sink half a million dollars into the project before she’s even thought about springing for seeds, much less a tractor.

Green doesn’t come from a farming family, so she found the next best option: the Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program, which pairs young farmers with experienced mentors. She spent five months working with a couple near Russell, Manitoba. “I was overwhelmed when I first arrived. What if I’m not good at farming? Or it’s too much work?” Luckily, she flourished. Over that time, she met other farmers, building out her network of contacts. Green now has a common-law partner who will farm with her, so between their two incomes, they can afford to buy land for her dream homestead. For now, she’s working with a non-profit company, Holistic Management Canada, helping other farmers transition to more ecological approaches. It’s a side door into the life she wants for herself someday.

Of course, if Green were still single, she might go in with friends. That’s what the founders of BeetBox did in 2017. The Ottawa-based friends were looking for a way to get into farming and grow their own food, but they weren’t impressed with the traditional top-down farming structure and hierarchy. Instead, they wanted a more equitable structure to the whole system, with collaboration and co-operation as core tenets. They were able to rent 120 acres of land in the National Capital Greenbelt, the largest publicly owned greenbelt in the world, very close to Ottawa’s urban centre. “None of us have any formal training. So we all want to be part of the decision-making process,” says Scott Lessard, a farm manager at the time. “If you were to go work at Joe’s Farm, then Joe’s the owner, and there’s very little chance of furthering your involvement in the short term.”

They have a community-supported agriculture program, where community members can sign up for farm shares and get a regular box of produce over certain summer and fall months. They have a seedling sale in May and sell veggies, herbs, and preserves at their farm store. Since BeetBox started, it has already shifted how it approaches production. Though they actively farm only four acres, they still need shortcuts and technologies. Lessard says the group recently purchased a new greenhouse system, which will automatically adjust the temperature and humidity ranges. “There’s just so many better uses of our time than turning on and off valves or opening and closing greenhouses,” Lessard says. “With the paper-thin margins that small farming involves, any improvements in efficiency are super valuable.”

Even such a hardworking and eager group doesn’t make its full profit from farming alone, though it is their top revenue generator. The co-operative also subleases land to other enterprises: a school garden, a garlic farmer, a beekeeper. Modern farming is adapting.

Perhaps no one has adapted more over the course of their farming career than Joe Dorgan. Now sixty-eight, Dorgan has lived and farmed his land on the western edge of PEI his whole life. He keeps about 250 acres outside Tignish, a community that used to be all farmers and fishermen but is now struggling. He’s raised beef and dairy cattle, along with pigs. He’s grown hay and potatoes. In 2007, he pivoted to find the next sustainable business plan: farming seaweed from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, roughly ten minutes from his front door. He sells it as an organic cattle feed supplement that he says can actually limit the amount of methane cows produce, helping stifle greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

While Dorgan moves more slowly these days, he has no plans to retire. His sons fish lobster. If they don’t take over, one of his grandchildren might, or his daughter-in-law could be a good candidate for succession. She helped bring his seaweed business online, where he now gets orders from as far away as Denmark.

Dorgan grew up before telephones were common in that area of the island. He’s seen changes throughout the area and remained loyal to his community through the ups and downs. He’s been a member of his local credit union since 1967. “I went in and borrowed $100 to buy a horse.” He paid that $100 back; his transactions are markedly bigger now. Ultimately, he tells me, if someone were interested in buying the farm and business, they’d have to offer at least $5 million, and then he’d sit down at the table to talk. That’s the opening bid just for the seaweed processor, not the 250 acres.

Dorgan doesn’t want to see small farms like his get swallowed up by huge enterprises. His operation used to be considered a decent size; now it’s tiny by most farming standards. As for machinery, Dorgan says a farmer is only as good as the people they have working with them. He’d like to keep doing as much of his work by hand as possible, but it’s getting harder. The youngest member of his crew is in his mid-fifties, and he’ll be leaving after this season. Farm labour is tough to find in general across Canada, and it’s even harder to entice people to rural PEI (that’s one reason the industry has become reliant on migrant workers). According to the 2021 census, nearly one quarter of Canadian farmers now live in an urban area, up from 16 percent in 2016. You can now house a whole farm in a repurposed shipping container in your backyard—gleaming trays of lettuce or strawberries or herbs—with controlled water and light and every parameter for optimal growth customizable with an app.

As Dorgan and others of his ilk see it, the innovations needed to keep Canadian farming alive are also what’s making it harder to do so. There’s still an interest, however small, in farming as a career and a lifestyle, and those entering the profession need hands-on experience, which could become more difficult to get as more tasks become automated. But investing in new technology and advancing with the times is different from a slavish devotion to the latest gadget. “A young fella just down the road here, he started up a new dairy farm two years ago: robotic milkers, everything state of the art,” Dorgan says, shaking his head. “I know his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather. Great farmers.” He wants to be more efficient. But some things, Dorgan says, just can’t be done by a drone.

Emily Baron Cadloff
Emily Baron Cadloff (@EmilyBat) is a writer and reporter based in Halifax. Her work often focuses on the intersection between women and pop culture. When she’s not working, you can find her scrolling through TikTok.
Glenn Harvey
Glenn Harvey is a Toronto-based illustrator. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, ESPN, The Atlantic, and more.