Sociology’s Carolan receives Fulbright to study precision agriculture and farm robotics in Canada

A Colorado State University faculty member in the Department of Sociology is teaming up with a Canadian researcher at the University of Ottawa to study the economic and social effects of precision agriculture.

Michael Carolan
Michael Carolan

Precision agriculture, or precision farming, refers to the use of technologies like global positioning systems and extensive weather data to improve crop production. The market for precision farming technologies is expected to reach about $6 billion by 2021. For example, robotics in dairy farming globally is already a $1.6 billion industry.

Professor Michael Carolan, associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts, has questions about how these growing fields have affected farmers and the dynamics of farming communities. To study the issues, he has received one of the top honors that the Fulbright Program offers: a Distinguished Research Chair Award.

About the award

Carolan will collaborate with Kelly Bronson, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottowa, and will spend the summer of 2020 in the Canadian city, in addition to several weekends and holiday breaks during the 2019-20 academic year. The four-month Fulbright commitment carries with it $25,000, which Carolan will use to defray travel costs and hire graduate students at the University of Ottawa to help with field work.

Building on research projects that he has been overseeing for the last two years, he plans to do a comparative analysis of precision agriculture and farm automation in the U.S. and Canada, and being based in Ottawa will give him close proximity to Canadian policymakers in the nation’s capital.

An example of the changing landscape he plans to study is the addition of robotics to dairy farms and how that might impact issues like farm succession. He has already documented instances where automation has led some senior farmers to continue working long after he or she would have normally retired. In another example of shifting dynamics, Carolan cites impacts on rural labor markets. While traditional jobs are being lost as high-tech equipment is added to farms, new jobs are opening up because someone needs to install and maintain that new technology.

“How does that affect the bottom line and community dynamics?” he asks. “It’s a different skill set to install and repair these new pieces of equipment, so do you bring in workers from the outside or train from within?  If the latter, then the next question is how can this be done to be least disruptive to rural economies and farming communities?”

Support for the project

Monica Gattinger, director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottowa, wrote a letter of support for Carolan’s Fulbright application.

“It would be interesting to see the results of your research into how our respective countries envision the opportunities and challenges,” Gattinger wrote, “and I am supportive of your research plan for identifying companies and interviewing their officials as well as government officials, farmers and representatives of farm organisations and reviewing related media coverage.”

Bronson said in a recommendation letter that Carolan is “an exceptionally prolific and influential researcher working at the intersection of technology and society.”

“Dr. Carolan’s work in this topic space has been incredibly important to my research and that of an international network of scholars and practitioners concerned about the societal implications of emergent agricultural tools,” Bronson wrote. “The cross-national comparative research proposed under this Fulbright will make an incredibly important addition to scholarship on digital agriculture and social science at large.”