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Harvesting the benefits – a work in progress

Richard Heath, general manager research, Australian Farm Institute, addressing the ‘Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture’ conference in Melbourne, 15 to 16 June 2017.

Digital agriculture and terms such as ‘big data’ are becoming part of the farming vernacular. Recent conferences and Research Updates have been analysing what it means in practice

The use of digital tools and technologies in agriculture is perceived to be lagging behind other industries, with one explanation being that many applications have been pushed by technology developers outside agriculture rather than ‘pulled’, or conceived, by the actual needs of growers.

This was one of the issues canvassed at the ‘Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture’ conference in Melbourne in June.

The conference, organised by the Australian Farm Institute, explored the digital landscape in agriculture, highlighting established benefits through the value chain to the retail interface with consumers.

The capacity of data collected at the user end of the chain is seen as an opportunity to shift the focus in farm production from yield to value. However, this would first have to overcome a perceived reticence among growers, particularly in broadacre industries.

Setting the scene at the start of the conference, the institute’s executive director, Mick Keogh, said the “gee-whiz” factor was wearing off for growers and being replaced by much more serious inquiry about tangible benefits.

However, there was also evidence presented showing the increasing role of digital technology in areas such as traceability and food security, which have become central to access and competitiveness in many food markets.

In a panel discussion wrapping up the conference, US-based agrifoods innovation expert Lisa Prassack said the test for digital technologies, generally, in agriculture was whether they could deliver measurable value, their ease of use and the level of technical support.

This was echoed by Dr Sjaak Wolfert, an information technologies in agrifoods specialist at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, who suggested the developers of digital tools for agriculture might be better off targeting consultants and take the pressure off growers who were preoccupied with an already complex management regime.

He also urged the agricultural sector as a whole to work towards a more globally integrated infrastructure.

Monsanto researcher Dr James Nielsen believed that data (collected through precision agriculture practices) and its use in decision-making tools was the way forward because its value would be more obvious to users: “We will see rising productivity from data being interpreted and used to lessen variability,” he said.

He cited the FieldViewTM platform, developed by the Climate Corporation to translate the full range of crop data into a comprehensive suite of digital tools for crop performance analysis, including real-time visual assessment of crop health derived from mapping technologies. Analysis through the season can be used to markedly improve the accuracy, efficiency and economics of inputs.

Dr Nielsen said the Climate Corporation planned to have one billion acres (404 million hectares) across the US, Brazil, Canada and Europe mapped within the FieldViewTM platform by 2020.

He said the company was assessing the technology’s potential fit in Australia.

Another US specialist, Ron Meeusen from Cultivan Sandbox Ventures, said his biggest fear was digital innovation following the same path as gene technologies: “When GMOs were developed by university researchers we believed it would be a democratic technology available to all involved in crop protection. Instead it came under the control of five or six companies because of the cost-prohibitive regulation that was imposed in response to the public opposition raised against it.

“As we look to the use of data and digital technologies, that’s a cautionary tale,” he said.

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