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Innovation vs. Nostalgia: Is our idyllic image of farming holding us back?

Innovation in agriculture is the buzz phrase of the moment when it comes to agriculture. At both the NSW Farmers’ Annual Conference and the National Farmers’ Federation Congress, innovation was the headline topic with a number of speakers and panels devoted to discussing this.

The farming community wants to embrace this new innovation, principally to improve bottom line and their own ability to compete. It would seem with precision agriculture, big data and advanced biotechnology that everything from cloned dairy cows to robotic weeders is possible and more.

The question though is are we actually ready? While the attitude of many farmers has changed, many still hold onto idyllic images of what agriculture is. Even their city dwelling counterparts have firm views on what agriculture looks like.

The case in point was a forum I recently attended in Wagga Wagga with a headline topic of ‘Agriculture in 2035.’ The event was a panel-based session with a range of interesting speakers and topics talking about future trends, big data and what the panel thought would be the next innovation. Some very interesting suggestions were thrown up some with nods of approval and others with shakes of the head and the muttering of ‘that won’t work here’ or ‘I don’t think you’ve considered…’ but one suggestion caught my attention and it is one which I think holds an interesting insight into how farmers think about innovation.

The suggestion was that by 2035 or perhaps even earlier, our fields of yellow canola would disappear. The suggestion was made that with advances in genetics the yellow canola flower would be reduced in size to the point of insignificance. The principle of course being that by reducing the flower size the plant could put more energy into pod production and less into growing the petals and hence greater yields.

Interestingly despite being a very rational suggestion and one that has origins in the Green Revolution the response from the room was notably emotional. Canola is one of the few instantly recognisable crops to the non-farmer and photos of fields flush with yellow adorn calendars and photo books here and abroad. Those yellow fields are an iconic collective image of what broad acre agriculture is and yet a room of commercial farmers had such a response. The same farmers who would likely heatedly argue with you over their right to grow genetically modified crops where a little taken a back on the suggestion to make their crops grow more efficiently.

So will this nostalgic idea of how farming should be hold us up in the future? Will it mean the innovation we need to improve productivity and efficiency is stymied? Realistically only time will tell. What this forum and no doubt countless others like it does say  though, is that while innovation in agriculture can and will lead to increased and better production, we need to ensure we bring our farmers along with us.

To be fair we have come far, to have seen a robot replace the huge number of laborers it once took to weed and maintain our crops. A few years ago that would have been a fantasy and yet today they can’t be built fast enough.

My hope is that agriculture will continue to innovate and that Australia will be at the lead in doing this and while we may lose our yellow fields, I think farming will still create a beautiful image in the Australian psyche.

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