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COVID-19 challenges push forward innovation and strategy

  • 3.5 min read

The agriculture and food production industries continue to face their fair share of challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes changes in everyday tasks to produce food. However, many are also proving that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Rozita Dara is an associate professor at the University of Guelph. Two of her areas of study are smart farming and food transparency. She says the pandemic is sparking agility in digital agriculture technologies.

Restrictions pushing ideas

Agriculture and food production industries' ability to adapt now during the pandemic will help down the road, in case of another major disease outbreak.

"Some of the restrictions, such as social distancing, may push for more platforms that manage data instead of relying on manual data collection, paper, etcetera," Dara says, noting data sharing will also change.

Agriculture and food production industries’ ability to adapt will also help their business down the road, in case of another major disease outbreak, Dara points out.

"We have the opportunity with technology and everything to think about what if it happens next time and how we can mitigate some of the issues and challenges that we were having in the past two to three months," she says.

Direct sales opportunities

The pandemic created opportunities across the country where consumers want more food straight from the farm. That left some farmers moving to direct farmgate sales, or farmers’ markets moving to online stores with curbsite pickup.

Brenda Tjaden, with Sustainable Grain, is involved with a food box program called Prairie Roots, a program started to assit farmers with the delivery of food.

Tjaden, who has a background as a food economist, says she anticipated the run on local food at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So, I quickly started connecting with small farms around Winnipeg and across Manitoba to identify what we have and then try to lineup a way to create a new distribution model because the large efficient one as we have seen is struggling to cope,“ Tjaden says.

She says the foodbox home delivery service in Winnipeg features regionally produced food from ecologically-minded farmers.

Tjaden adds they’re building additional opportunities for consumers to connect with farms amidst the pandemic with some distance through webinars. They’re hoping to hold farm tours this summer, if pandemic regulations and physical distancing rules allow.

Tjaden says the food box initiative is driven by the demand that consumers wanted food sold directly to them.

“The pressure to create Prairie Roots was from farms that were already direct selling to an established customer base,” she says.

Tjaden says participating farms have seen seeing phenomenal growth and are challenged keeping up with demand.

Innovation for common challenges

Innovation has moved forward during the pandemic in other ways, as farm and food processors work to find ways to protect themselves, family, friends, coworkers and community from the virus.

That was the case for Andrew Jarvie, a senior test engineer with John Deere. He came up with a uniquely designed hook to use as a door opener.

Early in the pandeminc outbreak, Jarvie saw there were dozens of common touch surfaces, such as door handles, in his testing lab in Milan, Illinois and felt they needed something to help protect everyone.

"I came up with a couple of different designs, did some quick testing with a couple of individuals here to see what works, what didn't with different door handles, basically went through seven designs in a day and a half and then started making them on a 3D printer for folks," Jarvie said.

The opener is designed to hook on to an employee's badge, making it easy to access and keep clean.

The hook has become a huge hit with not only his coworkers in his test lab but many other business units within John Deere. He also made countless versions on his own printer at home for family, friends and community members.

The hook has become so popular the company put the design up on their COVID-19 best practices site.

"We wanted to get the message out to any industrial manufacturer who may be struggling with what are we going to do improve employee safety, we wanted to do our part," says Craig Sutton, manager for advanced manufacturing innovation.

Farmers and agri-businesses working with innovations in order to comply with COVID-19 regulations may be eligible for financial support to move the idea to reality.

Bottom line

Necessary safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic means some farmers and food processors moving to direct sales and adopting other innovative measures. Innovations and strategies can sometimes need funding to move to reality, and funding may be available to help. 

Article by: Craig Lester