Agriculture is high-tech!

Makenna chats with Alyson, a mechanical engineering student with a farming background, about the interdisciplinarity she sees in her education and life skills.

Alyson and family pose in front of a tractor on their family farm.

The Katernchuk family in front of an Air Seeder during spring seeding.


YouAlberta is written by students for students.

Makenna (she/her) is in her fifth year of mechanical engineering. Born and raised in Calgary, outside of classes, you can find her climbing the Athabasca Glacier with the Mission SpaceWalker student team. Makenna’s goal is to become an astronaut! She is incredibly dedicated and resilient and plans to pursue her pilot’s license and continue her education — because, as she states, “learning is the best job!” Her favourite place on campus is wherever her friends are, be it at the gym or spending late nights studying in ECERF DICE; they always lighten the mood and make her smile.

From the toast you eat for breakfast to the ethanol biofuel used in your car, grain is part of our daily lives. Have you ever wondered what goes into making these crops, and more specifically, the interdisciplinary skills required to feed our future?

Alyson, a mechanical engineering student, has taken part in her family farm in Alberta all her life, and this article shares some of the incredible innovations and experiences that come with that industry. We have come a long way from planting grain by hand, as Alyson also shares how even machines and AI are helping grow our food!

Alyson and her brother Wyatt fixing a combine header.

Alyson and her brother Wyatt fixing a combine header.

Alyson and both of her parents have pursued degrees in engineering, and with the interdisciplinary nature of farming, it makes sense why these skills can be utilized. “Something that is often overlooked with farming is how much it is structured like a business where financial and project management classes have paralleled how our family manages our farm,” she says. Not only do they determine which crops to grow and when the best time is to harvest, but they also have to consider where and when their product is sold to the market. In nature, which is unpredictable, there are also challenges managing crops eaten by wildlife or damaged from droughts. “Classes such as our risk management course are essential due to the many dangers that are on a farming operation. It honestly surprised me how much overlap there has been as I go through my degree,” says Alyson, reflecting on how the U of A engineering program applies to the family farm.

Growing up on grain fields

Imagine growing up in nature with the freedom to run and play. That is exactly what Alyson’s childhood was like, where she says they were constantly building new forts or going on random adventures with her two siblings.

Alyson, at age 7

Alyson, at age 7.

A family-operated business takes a lot of effort, and her family undertakes all the work that goes into making and selling the grain. For example, during harvest, they often haul grain to the facilities at 5 a.m., followed by cleaning and servicing the equipment and operating the combines. This process often takes until midnight!

Despite this hard work, Alyson mentions it is also a lot of fun. “Our parents wanted us to be involved as much as we wanted, and were always willing to teach and support us,” she says. For her, this meant she could try on many hats, from an agronomist understanding how different factors affect farming to a mechanic learning how to weld. She also utilized hand tools to take apart and fix equipment. “I can now operate every piece of equipment we have, from combines to semi-trucks, and CAT machinery!” she says.

Another interesting aspect of their family farm is the projects they are involved in. “My parents are civil and mechanical engineers,” says Alyson. “We do our own mechanic work, from completing daily maintenance to replacing bearings, shafts and engines.” This means she had exposure from an early age to applied math and physics and even helped use survey equipment for preparing land for putting up various infrastructures such as grain bins. There is a lot to learn on a farm, and she grew up in a place that encouraged her curiosity and growth. Alyson still helps her family farm year-round, engaging in various tasks and learning new ones along the way.

Alyson on the 2023 MSW/Rockaboo Athabasca Glacier Field Trip

Alyson on the 2023 MSW/Rockaboo Athabasca Glacier Field Trip

Engineering, business, botany and more…

Alyson is also the engineering lead of Mission SpaceWalker (MSW), an all-women and gender-diverse research team. “Something that drew me to the MSW analog mission is the importance of sustainability and resource management,” says Alyson. Currently, MSW is working on a citizen-science platform and analog mission, which includes sustainable energy generation and monitoring of the Athabasca glacier. This project is in collaboration with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures and Parks Canada. Alyson mentions that finding effective uses of resources, including land, water and energy, while considering their impact is an important aspect of both farming and the MSW remote sensing and sustainable energy generation project. “Living on a farm, we are continuously monitoring our effects on the environment, such as soil erosion, water pollution and habitat destruction.”

The Katernchuk family at Agritechnica 2023 in Hannover, Germany.

The Katernchuk family at Agritechnica 2023 in Hannover, Germany

Technological advances in farming

One of the funniest misconceptions Alyson has heard is how many people assume we do a lot of tasks by hand. “Imagine what raking means, and then try looking up raking, making hay,” Alyson says laughingly. However, many are not aware of how advanced the farming industry is. Many farms are investors driving technological innovation, including drones for crop spraying and surveying the land. “Modern equipment incorporates AI and machine learning for optimizing every aspect of the growing processes from seeding to spraying to harvesting,” says Alyson. “Many components of an average agricultural operation will no longer require a person to drive the equipment.”

With the rise of robotics and automation, Alyson also mentioned a specific case where AI can be implemented. “Many companies like NEXAT are developing module equipment to have a carrier vehicle with interchangeable attachments, which can be swapped for different functions such as seeding, harvest and tillage,” she says. Currently, most machines are designed for one specific task or are limited in their application; however, this type of technology enables one machine to be applied to various purposes. This shows how farming is really taking interdisciplinary to the next level, involving business managers to AI scientists!

The agricultural industry is pushing technology to new heights and even has conferences worldwide. Recently, Alyson and her family travelled to Hannover, Germany, to attend Agritechnica, a world leader in trade technology. She notes, “It was inspiring to see the large community and how fast the technology is becoming accessible to smaller farms. With each country comes different regulations, making it an interesting conversation to collaborate and learn from farms across the world. Unlike their operation in rural Alberta, some urban areas are exploring concepts like vertical farming and hydroponic or aeroponic systems where land isn’t as plentiful or viable as it is here for Albertan grain farmers.”

This technological innovation has also happened quite rapidly, where in two generations, land went from being cleared by hand to being cleared with automated equipment. “It took a long time for me to wrap my mind around how my grandparents cleared the fields from rocks and trees with an axe and horses to make arable land,” says Alyson. However, even with all this automation, farmers play an essential role in the operation and optimization of their farming process, which requires constant consideration of the unpredictability of nature. From risk management to environmental analysis, Alyson and her family farm show how interdisciplinary farms are, which is an industry that will continue to grow technologically and literally!