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6 recurring themes dominating the agtech discussion

There’s lots of chatter (and a decent amount of evidenced-based research) that says agtech (think artificial intelligence and big data) represents the next big thing for agriculture.

Those in the know say the application of new technologies could be the secret to farmers producing more with less; operating more efficiently and sustainably; and ultimately feeding more people. Sounds like utopia!

But how do we reach this promised land? Just how do we realise these opportunities?

A coming-together of tech experts and farmers at a recent Canberra Region Agtech Meetup identified the below six obstacles as the major impediments to the start of Australia’s next ag revolution.

1. Show me the money

Entrepreneurs, start-ups – there’s no shortage of good (and average) ideas out there. But ideas need cold hard cash to make them a reality. In the start-up world there’s a strong tendency to seek venture capital investment. The process whereby a cashed-up company or individual gives a venture the leg-up it needs while all the time eyeing a (profitable) exit.

Is the Australian market big enough to support this approach? Maybe the kick-start sound ag-techies need could come from Australia’s tried and true rural research and development structure – the model whereby farmers pay levies to invest in new science to improve their productivity and profitability?

The (relatively few) successful Aussie ag-tech start-ups have largely become so through self-sufficiency. That old idea of ‘starting off slow and investing everything you make back into your business idea’ – ah simple times! 

2. Solving the problems farmers need solved

Let it not be said that farmers aren’t techies – on the whole farmers are early adopters of technology. But farmers are getting on with the job of growing food and fibre and not (mostly – some are!) devising apps and cracking computer code.

How do we find the sweet spot where the expertise of tech-buffs are applied to the REAL problems farmers need solved? The problems that are the barriers to farmers realising increased yields, improved efficiencies, and potentially an improved work-life balance?

farmers need to welcome skinny jean-wearing, hipster-beard sporting, tech-savvy entrepreneurs into their world

Getting a productive conversation between farmers and the largely urban-based tech world is key, but the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. Such a conversation will involve give and take on both sides. Our tech friends need to use less words like ‘accelerator’ (a mechanism to increase vehicle speed) and ‘incubator’ (a device for hatching chickens). Conversely, farmers need to welcome skinny jean-wearing, hipster-beard sporting, tech-savvy entrepreneurs into their world.

Do representative bodies like the National Farmers Federation have a role in fostering this connection. Yes absolutely – read about NFF’s involvement in SproutX here.

3. Who owns my data?

Farmers like, many of us, are concerned about who has their information, and how they can use it. Technology now enables the collection of great tranches of farm data including information over many years as to what crops a farmer planted, what chemical controls were applied and what yields were achieved. This data can be incredibly powerful for farmers to analyse performance and to plan ahead. In Australia, we’re still grappling with how to address data ownership – the public versus private debate. For many farmers in order to truly embrace agtech, this issue will need to be resolved.

4. Connectivity!

Mobile phone and internet connectivity. These old chestnuts! There’s no escaping the fact that if a farmer can’t use a smart phone for a call or web connection outside the farm office than the opportunity for agtech is severely limited.

The issue, of connectivity, or lack of, threatens to burst the bubble of most agtech start-ups.

(P.S. There’s arguably no bigger issue facing regional and rural Australia than the fight to get #betterbushcomms. It has ramifications for safety and social interactions and likewise the progress of rural business. See what the National Farmers’ Federation is doing to end the #datadrought

5. Intergenerational change

Succession planning is, and will continue to be, a thorn in the side of many farming families. Throwing agtech into the mix further complicates these discussions.

Often the ‘young’, often tertiary-educated son or daughter suggests the application of a new technology. The parent, who has, let’s face it, built the farm up to be what it is today, perhaps doesn’t understand the potential for the new technology but …… does appreciate business risk.

6. The changing face of farmer skills

Not so much a challenge as ‘an FYI – it’s coming’

The adoption of automous tractors and robotic weed spotters will change the traditional skill-set of a farmer. With laborious and relatively simple jobs of sowing, weed control and checking livestock taken care of, the farmers of the future can spend more time doing other things. Like marketing their produce, exploring new funding models, considering new ventures, nurturing their stamp collection and perfecting the downward dog.

In the same vein – farmers will need to have a set of new skills. It’s not incomprehensible that the farmer of tomorrow may also be an amateur coder!

Like the businesses that’s support the farm industry today – think metal fabricators and mechanics, – new skills will be needed to support agriculture, like sensor fixers and robot doctors.

These challenges and more discussed were at the most recent Canberra Region Agtech Meetup. The event was supported by the National Farmers’ Federation, Grain Growers Limited, GoTerra and Minter Ellison. The Meetup conversation was started by guest speaker Sarah Nolet the founder of AgThenic. Sarah is a Sydney-based, but Silicon-Valley raised, mentor for tech start-ups and investors.

Sarah Nolet, founder of AgThentic (left) and Tony Mahar, CEO of National Farmers’ Federation (right).
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1 Responses

    Data evolution in farming is exciting and a real opportunity to step up to future farming potential through understanding the details of what is going on within or cropping and animal systems. The article identifies the gap between the tech development and the farm and I see this on a daily basis working with farmers. As farmers we are being delivered new data about old practices, it is not that the data evolution is telling us anything new but rather giving us a far better understanding of our daily practices and a far greater opportunity to manage those practices but we struggle to reeducate ourselves with the skills to use the data to its best outcome. It is easy to find Ag businesses that have invested in data tech but fail to utilize it to its full potential, for example GPS is far more useful than driving in a straight line and soil information layers make pretty pictures but where are the skills to turn that into field outcomes. The most successful uptakes of data systems that we are witnessing are those businesses which can afford to employ the so called hipsters down on the farm but it is difficult to convince those people to move into regional areas and to disconnect from city life and for smaller Ag businesses it is uneconomical to employ that level of skill or to keep that person busy enough to remain engaged and career gratified. When we talk about investment and ownership with data I feel that investment should be in industry organizations where multiple businesses can pool resources to employ highly skilled data analysts. As industries we are very comfortable with taking recommendations from professional service providers such as agronomists and market services so why can we not use our established industry organizations to take in the data, analyze it with BMP resources and output highly targeted recommendations. Could that be the link between new tech and it's take up on farm which could achieve grower ownership of technology without having thousands of on farm tech desks, in other words keep it simple and forget the multi million dollar start up models that fail to deliver and are the regret of many investors? Luke.

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