Digital Impact on Ag

Digital technology has been quietly transforming Australian agriculture for the past few decades and is now extending to the outback and making impact in ways previously not anticipated. Education, collaboration, security, monitoring, and improved efficiencies are making a big difference in a highly competitive and risk filled environment, which is why our primary producers are jumping on board.

Back in 2015 I organised a professional development day for secondary school teachers alerting them to new career and business opportunities in rural Australia. Gareth Evans spoke to us via skype from O’Connors in Birchip. Far from moving away from the action when he left his city job to return to rural Victoria, Gareth spoke about how he has witnessed an explosion of new technology related systems supporting Australia’s agriculture industry. ‘O’Connors maintains a series of surveyed base stations strategically located throughout SA, VIC and NSW supplying a RTK signal capable of delivering 2cm accuracy,’ he explained. ‘Precision Ag means that farmers can now monitor their entire fleet on a screen and communicate with machines via live telemetrics.’

Chatting more recently on the phone with an older generation Riverina based rice grower, he told me how he was transferring data from his tractor to his agronomist’s office by email. In short, all modern farm machinery requires a level of digital literacy on the part of farmers. And this needs to be backed up by technicians trained to service these increasingly complex machines and analyse the big data they can produce.

What was initially viewed as a novelty or purely educational is now becoming serious business as the potentials are realised.

My colleague, Tim Gentle from the Think Digital Coach has been touring cattle industry events the past few months with a virtual reality experience aimed at inspiring more young people to take up farming. Initially it’s a far reach for cattle farmers but it starts to make sense when Tim spells out the possibilities and they are quickly being taken up. Virtual Reality videos can be used to help promote and sell animals, machinery and properties to buyers who are located hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away. They can also be used to induct staff in a real life, yet safe, environment.

Cost efficiencies and shared risk is seeing a resurgence in agriculture cooperatives and collaborations seeking to drive innovation and improve farm gate returns.

Funded by the Australian Government, the Farming Together Program has supported almost 500 groups with collaborative projects over the past two years. One of the projects has enabled the Birchip Cropping Group to evaluate a digital agricultural cooperative. Unless you are extremely tech savvy it is hard to know what the best choices are. Ultimately the aim is to give farmers access to trusted sources to provide increasingly complex digital technology.

As our climate continues to change and water becomes more expensive, sustainable farming practices and monitoring are becoming more important.

And, as wages increase and staff numbers fall, real time data enables farmers to better manage their crops, livestock and pastures. Progressive young cattle producers like David and Rebecca Comiskey at Melton in central Queensland have already adopted the basics and are keen to do more. With minimal staff and 8,500 hectares to monitor, apps on their smart phones currently help them to monitor their solar powered stock fences and water storage as part of their introduced rotational grazing system. They can even monitor rainfall while away from the property which helps with their planning and enables them to enjoy important recreation time.

Security on remote properties is another increasing concern.

Viewers of the acclaimed Mystery Road may have noticed camera footage from water trough locations around the Western Australian property that featured in the series and provided key clues to the disappearance of two young stockmen. Far from fiction, this is an actual tool that assists farmers Australia wide, not only with monitoring but security. Fixed cameras provide sheep breeder, Jock MaCrae in central Victoria with live feed of his assets via his smart phone. Gate monitors alert him to unusual activity and there is potential for tags to also be placed on key stock to alert him to mob movement that could indicate a dog attack or theft. All this can be verified before leaving a warm bed and driving out into the paddocks.

Improved efficiencies is essential when growing animals or crops and manufacturing related products in large quantities.

At Pentagon Feeds in northern Victoria, an infra-red machine, the size of a little computer, gives them the ability to scan incoming samples of grain, and translate the imagery into data that is then emailed to their nutritionist for analysis. Another piece of technology then accurately sprays up to an additional 4 percent of fat coating around the food pellets. A nutritionist uses the information from this equipment to formulate appropriate rations for each class of pig.

And of course digital technology is an absolute blessing for smaller producers entering niche markets.

They are able to market and sell their produce world-wide. Simply Rose Petals in northern Victoria was an early adopter of technology to transform a cut flower business into packaged rose petals for weddings and events. Sales via a website and intensive use of social media has taken their product into 15 countries. In another great example, Lauren Mathers from southern New South Wales had a vision of a herd of free roaming black heritage pigs rooting about improving the soil.  Bundarra Berkshires was subsequently born and now she sells quality pork products online and through farmers markets.

Slowly the National Broadband Network is being rolled out to the regions with wireless tower options providing access for more rural properties, however, connectivity remains a big issue in many areas.

Thankfully, there are many instances of those willing to work with innovators, finding their way around these issues.

William Creek in South Australia took the option of lobbying in Canberra and getting Optus to allocate satellite access to their tiny town.  In another partnership with Richmond Shire Council, a broadband internet service, Wi-Sky, was generated for Queensland cattle producers and now services 50 customers across a 20,000 square kilometre radius. Not only is this connecting farmers but also their children to School of the Air which has long struggled to deliver online services to many of their remote customers unable to download videos and big files.

Slade Beard from Eco Thought is approaching this same problem for remote stations through the development of smart farm sensor and control systems powered by a radio-based network with low bandwidth Wi-Fi over long distances. He plans to utilise old windmills to hosting radio masts and is now rigorously testing the hardware to ensure it can stand up to Australia’s harsh weather conditions.

Even in the more highly populated and smaller state of Victoria, issues still arise with connectivity. ‘Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant Sutton from Ag Cloud. His company has developed a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. In plain English, this means that farmers can extend their high speed internet reach to parts of their properties previously not able to take advantage of digital technology.

Even to a casual observer like myself, each year the agricultural industry is venturing more and more into what was previously viewed as science fiction. Digital technology is big business from one end of this big country to the other.


Just discovered this blog from the CSRIO with a more expert opinion! https://blog.csiro.au/digital-agriculture-whats-all-the-fuss-about/


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Blooming Technology

BY KERRY ANDERSON

When Sarah Sammon helped reinvent her mother’s farm comprising 1,000 rose plants in 2004, no-one in the cut flower industry could have foreseen just how much this new business would change and bloom.

In what was initially perceived as a problem Sarah saw an opportunity.

Spurred on by her inability to get a job with a career focus upon returning to her home town of Swan Hill, Sarah put her science degree and entrepreneurial spirit to good use researching alternatives to a struggling cut flower industry. 

‘At this time traditional confetti started being frowned upon at wedding venues because it caused staining and was not biodegradable,’ explains Sarah. ‘We saw an opportunity and went for it.’

Simply Rose Petals was subsequently launched on an unsuspecting public by this dynamic mother daughter duo. And when I say launched, I mean it in every possible way including confetti cannons that shoot the petals up to 14 feet high and the product being featured on popular Australian television shows such as The Bachelor, X Factor, Dancing With The Stars, The Bachelorette and Big Brother!

Sarah has constantly utilised technology to keep Simply Rose Petals ahead of the many competitors that subsequently scrambled to follow in their footsteps.

Specialised technology allows their rose petals to be freeze-dried, packaged and shipped to 15 countries around the world.   Such has been the demand, that they have expanded their number of rose plants from 1,000 to 6,000.

From her rural office surrounded by roses on the banks of the mighty Murray River, Sarah literally spends thousands of hours online each year researching ideas to keep taking the business forward. Social media has played a major factor. Scholarships and awards have also been useful tools.

In 2006 she received a Churchill Fellowship to travel to eleven countries exploring effective processing, packaging and storage techniques, and the latest mechanisation trends in the flower industry. With harvesting of rose petals the most labour intensive activity, Sarah had hoped to discover a way of mechanising this process during her Fellowship. 

‘Unfortunately I was unable to discover a machine that was capable of removing the petals without damaging or bruising them,’ she admits. She was, however, able to analyse the latest in air-drying versus freeze-drying technology to help make important decisions for their business.

Her quest for more knowledge is ongoing. Through a Nuffield Scholarship in 2014 Sarah explored further uses for rose petals including edible and organic rose petals in a growing ‘foodie’ culture, spurred on by cooking shows such as MasterChef.

‘Despite food certification challenges in Australia, the Nuffield tour convinced me that rose petals can be successfully produced organically and there is plenty of scope for creating specialty foods and nutritional supplements derived from rose petals,’ says Sarah.

With an insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm driving her to continuously improve the business, it is no surprise that Sarah has been recognised as a finalist through the Telstra Businesswomen’s Awards and, in 2015, received the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award for female Australian entrepreneur under 40.

Make no mistake. Constantly exploring opportunities to introduce new products, methods, and technologies, has been an integral part of this enterprising rural businesswoman’s journey.

Sarah’s top business tips:

1.   Every business requires a determination and persistence that can only be fuelled by passion and hard work. Make sure you are in it for the long haul and not the short financial gain.

2.   Innovation is achievable for everyone. It can be as simple as reinventing what's already out there or creating new packaging for your product that makes it easier for your customers to use.

3.   You can't expect your business to be healthy if you don't take care of yourself first. The health, fitness and mental wellbeing of the entrepreneur is crucial.

Simply Rose Petals Website

Churchill Trust Report   

Nuffield Report   


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

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