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What do they want? Agriculture’s young leaders tell RIRDC

Managing Director of Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) John Harvey has been meeting with agriculture’s next generation of industry leaders, and he is seriously impressed. The next challenge, he says, is providing them with the support, networks and services they need to ensure the industry’s bright future.

The agriculture sector’s importance to Australia’s national economy has never been greater. It currently contributes $63 billion (2.3 per cent) of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the country’s bottom line and according to National Farmers' Federation has the potential to rival the mining sector and tip over $100 billion by 2030.

It was with this big and bright future in mind that RIRDC set out to host seven Regional Innovation Conversation events, meeting with agriculture’s young leaders from every state and territory.

Having met 150 of these young leaders in recent months, it’s safe to say they’re up to the challenge. In fact, I’ve been blown away by the enormous talent and enthusiasm of Australia’s next generation of agricultural leaders.

RIRDC’s reason for meeting with them was to discuss the issues and challenges they’re facing and discover what support they need to succeed; however, almost to a fault, we found these young people are just getting on with the job.

Whether they are part of a farming enterprise, researchers, entrepreneurs, business owners, working in the supply chain or providing services to agriculture these young people share a ‘can-do’ attitude and a steely determination to succeed.

We also discovered that they are learning and networking differently. They aren’t joining traditional farmer organisations or reading traditional publications and media.

They’re getting their information, networking with each other and sharing knowledge via social media. But interestingly, they realise that in order to flourish professionally they need to be better connected; not just online and not just to each other but to people from other industries and countries with useful skills and experience. Real collaboration and the ability to be a part of a supportive innovation ecosystem was considered a critical ingredient that could lead to risk taking and innovation.

Technology doesn’t just influence their information consumption and the way they connect with others in their industry, it’s also creating an increasingly complex industry and workplace environment for these young people to become leaders – which is both an opportunity and a threat.

There was real excitement in the group about how on-farm decision making is being augmented by information from digital technology such as sensors, drones and robots. Plus the efficiency potential of autonomous vehicles, smart irrigation systems, 3D printing and more was an exciting prospect for this next generation of leaders.

Darrin Lee, a grazier and avid fisherman from Mingenew in Western Australia, brought this potential to life when he told us about how he uses low-bandwidth sensors to monitor water trough levels from his fishing boat and can then turn on a pump with a click on his phone.

Agriculture's next generation of industry leaders: RIRDC Managing Director John Harvey with Rebecca Milliken from Wagga Wagga, NSW who has been selected to take part in the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) (sponsored by RIRDC).

There was also a lot of excitement from young leaders in the cotton industry about emerging technologies that make it possible to automate and remotely manage irrigation on their farms. New ‘smart syphon’ or ‘smart irrigation’ systems are being trialled extensively in Northern NSW and in Victoria companies like Rubicon Water are leading the way with inventions like the Smart Furrow Automation Irrigation Solution. What was once a dream has become a reality, with these growers now able to control the irrigation on their entire property from their laptop or smartphone.

More troubling was the consistent message we got from young leaders that they haven’t planned for the adoption of forthcoming transformative technologies and that their businesses haven’t built the necessary capital reserves to accommodate it.

There was also concern about how regulation struggles to keep pace with technology developments. And of course, connectivity issues in rural and regional Australia were raised consistently as a barrier to adoption, and to doing business efficiently in general.  The positive flipside to this were the stories we heard about farmers bypassing traditional telecommunications carriers and service providers by installing their own wired and wireless solutions for full farm coverage.

This shift to increasingly technology savvy farms also highlighted how agriculture is becoming more reliant on non-traditional skills. Recruiting people with these necessary skills – in technology, engineering, finance, management and more – was considered one of the key challenges for the industry’s immediate future.

Freedom to fail was another idea we heard again and again at the conversations. In innovation and entrepreneurship, small failures are often considered a stepping stone to success, but in agriculture this approach doesn’t yet exist. What they were asking for was some room to face setbacks, with the security of knowing they would have time and resources to recover.

To take this one step further, many of the young leaders wanted to shift away from the traditional land ownership model of farming and thought it was time to consider alternative arrangements where equity partners not only provide capital but also bring a high level of skills into a farming business. Arrangements where corporate partners and non-traditional capital lending options support farm acquisition and growth were also considered exciting future prospects.

As you can see, these young industry leaders are dynamic, entrepreneurial, commercially savvy and well connected.

The question then turns, for RIRDC and the 14 other Research and Development Corporations, to how can we best support these young leaders to ensure a thriving future for Australian agriculture?

To my mind, it means we must think differently about how we get our research information and new products out to people. We need a new approach to make sure we keep pace with the types of skills and opportunities these young people need to be confident as industry leaders. We need to help them come together and we need to help build their capacity as decision makers. In response to their needs it’s now us that must be flexible.

John Harvey is the Managing Director of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, based in Wagga Wagga, NSW.

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