We have been hearing a lot about “agtech”, a phrase that frames a lot of things, from sensors to drones to Big Data to smartphones.
Technological advances are at the centre of the ambition expressed in a new National Farmers Federation/KPMG report, recently launched by the Prime Minister, to have Australian agriculture grow by 70 per cent to be a $100 billion industry by 2030.
And another recent multi-stakeholder report, Accelerating Precision Agriculture To Decision Agriculture, suggests that if Australian agriculture effectively adopted all the technologies it currently has at its disposal, it could add $20 billion in productivity gains.
I’ve been thinking about these tech-filled visions, and looking at the reality I see around me.
On our farm, agtech is not much in evidence, even though we are looking for opportunities to jump on board. We have no drones, no smartphone apps, no networks of sensors reporting on every change in soil moisture or shift in chlorophyll. But we really would like to adopt new ways of measuring and monitoring our farm entrprises – from wool yields to pasture growth.
I don’t think we’re different to a lot of successful farmers — but like those farmers, we are waiting for the best time to adopt new agtech. That will come when we see a clear case that a technology will help to make running our farm business simpler and time efficient.
Technology drives the development of the crops we grow and the machinery we use to sow and harvest them; technology has made our sheep and cattle more productive than nature alone ever made them; and technology allows us to monitor and exploit our markets with far greater sophistication than was possible a decade or so ago.
These are largely the technologies of tools, an extension of the program that started more than a more than a million years ago when pre-humans began chipping flakes off rocks to make them useful.
The agtech revolution is different. It brings together technologies of intelligence, and that’s why I think it will matter to all of us, even farmers who remain devoted to their trusty pocket notebook.
Networks of cheap sensing technologies hooked up to massive data-processing capability is giving us the ability to see, as a whole, the relationships that stretch from soil to consumer, and loop back again.
This represents a giant extension of the human brain — not just better business intelligence, but a more acute environmental and social intelligence that should allow farmers to explore new ways of doing things without the consequences that blind exploration has sometimes delivered in the past.
The reports mentioned above list numerous examples of systems that already give farmers this outboard brain. We don’t lack for technological cleverness, but as the reports note, we are missing interoperability. The agtech now on offer appears as a marketplace full of competing systems, rather than an ecosystem of complementary technologies that connect to each other and each farm enterprise.
For now, we have less need of new technologies than we have need of great design that stitches existing technologies together.
It will be well-designed policy that changes the connectivity problems plaguing Australian ag sector; and good design will open up the silos of information along our supply chains. It will take very good design to persuade farmers that technology can be as simple to use as the pocket notebook, but exponentially more effective.
When that happens, I have no doubt that the glorious forecasts of agtech’s potential for Australian ag will be realised, and quickly.
By Robbie Sefton
This article was published in The Land newspaper on Thursday 5 April, 2018. Link to the article can be found here: http://www.theland.com.au/story/5320808/agtech-a-new-crop-of-opportunities/?cs=4941
Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.