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Agtech: What the umbrella term really means

Buzz word: Agtech refers to “transforming the global food system” through digital technology

ACCELERATOR, incubator, start-up, connectivity — the buzzwords of the digital age can be clear as, well, mud.

And when lumped under the umbrella term “agtech”, it’s no wonder farmers, investors and business leaders can be left scratching their heads.

Entrepreneur group Start Up Australia says the term agtech refers to “transforming the global food system” through digital technology.

Monsanto Australia technology boss James Nielsen says agtech is “about smart farmers getting smarter using digital technology”.

And the Australian Farm Institute, a body increasingly wading through the agtech pool, says it’s about “connecting things that have been around for some time”.

At the root of it, agtech is simply combining two words to define the joining of two worlds — agriculture and technology. And while using the latest in machinery is nothing new to those who work the land, the latest wave of digital technology requires farmers to adopt a whole new set of skills to keep up.

And as farmers are called on to increase production while reducing costs, with limited water and space, they are going to need all the technology they can access, whether it’s advancements in robotics, drones, aerial mapping, the latest in software or technical support for decision making.

Data collection is one of the biggest game changers for agriculture.

“It’s about things like yield monitors, spray monitors — that we already have — and using the data they produce more efficiently and for a wider range of purposes,” says AFI research general manager Richard Heath.

Data is key: Richard Heath

Heath says the principle behind digital agriculture, “which is combining data for more insight”, has been used by innovative farmers for some time, but it has been complex, difficult, and farmers had to have a lot of aptitude in data collection.

“What is going to happen now is that those mass market products and solutions are going to take it beyond that 1 per cent into more of the technology that everyone can engage with really quickly and adopt,” Heath says.

Early agtech adopter and avid data collector, Steve Pitstick, says the key to getting good results out of harvested data is to collect as much information as you can.

The Illinois cropping farmer started collecting data on his farm about 20 years ago, trying to find trends to predict yields, planting times and fertiliser needs.

Pitstick, who grows corn and soybeans, says the challenge with digital agriculture is gathering enough data to draw conclusions that can be applied to whole farms or even farming sectors.

“Even after 20 years, we’re still in a data-gathering mode,” he tells DecisionAg. “We’re trying to get more data to figure out what happened each season and why.”

In 2008 Pitstick started collecting digital data on every farm application, including fertiliser, planting and specific seed paddock placement. By 2011 he was using aerial imagery to predict a month or two ahead of harvest what the potential harvest might be.

By 2013 he was collecting “a whole lot more data” from his machinery, collating a row-by-row picture on what was happening in the field, feeding that into software on his iPad.

“With the iPad everything is captured and georeferenced, so if you do something in the field, you can pull up the map and walk right back to that spot,” Pitstick says. “The iPad has made things much more accessible than when we had to do these things on a PC.

“I think the biggest move forward with technology will be fertiliser management because it’s one of our biggest applications and we need to hone the placement of fertiliser based on data about soil types, productivity and weather.

“For the past 50 years we’ve just spread X amount of fertiliser based on an average of the farm and on average weather, but I think through data we can fine-tune that.”

But the problem, he says, is adoption rates among farmers of digital agriculture.

“A lot of people are scared of technology and there are many reasons why people don’t adopt it, including difficulty to use, fear of spending money on something you don’t know will help you and not being able to see immediate results.

“When autosteer came in, people could look over the fence and see perfectly straight rows and say, I want that too, but with agtech the results are more invisible and somebody has to tell you about them.”

US data strategy consultant and agri food innovation expert Lisa Prassack says agtech has to be easy to use and provide clear results if it is to be widely taken up by farmers.

“Basically if something is too difficult, it’s not going to happen,” Prassack says. “If it’s easy, and it answers a question, then it will be adopted.

“And you have to be able to show them measurable outcomes they can use now, not distant promises that might not come to fruition.”

Prassack has introduced farmers to technology that cuts loss as a result of hail, can reduce spray drift, and a biologic puffer that uses insect pheromones instead of pesticides to control damaging bugs.

She uses software to help farmers plant more high quality seeds in the most productive parts of their paddocks and fewer, lower quality seeds in the least productive areas.

“One of my farmers thought he had a nitrogen issue in part of his farm, and kept dumping nitrogen on it, but this tool told him that the issue was compaction,” Prassack says.

“A simple fix after years of not knowing the answer to his problem.”

She says the best way to spread the word about the benefits of agtech is for cutting-edge or “rockstar farmers” as she calls them, to talk to other farmers and tell them why it is important to use a product and contribute their data to help everyone.

But in Australia there is another agtech obstacle — the ability for those in remote regions to connect to the internet.

“There is a lot of really interesting commercial technology that is emerging to solve connectivity problems within farms,” says AFI’s Richard Heath.

“There’s no point collecting this data if you can’t get it off the farm through internet connectivity.

“Wireless networks and really cheap satellite technology are becoming available, but that’s moving data around the farm. It still has to get from the farm into the cloud, and there still has to be internet connectivity at some point.”

The much-vaunted National Broadband Network announced in June it would double download limits for its Sky Muster satellite service for regional and rural communities after widespread criticism the satellites offered a lacklustre service.

Whether this provides the regular, reliable service farmers require for wide scale data collection, remains to be seen.

On the up side, farmers may receive a helping hand in their quest to increase productivity with the recent development of programs designed to get fledgling agtech ventures up and running.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, for those who had a great idea for an agriculture technology business, it was a case of sink or swim. But with a surge of “accelerators”, “incubators” or “angel investors”, the chances of getting an agtech idea from concept to customer at least now comes with a fighting chance of succeeding.

Yes, more buzzwords, but to those looking to help farmers with technology designed in Australia specifically for local production methods and climate, they are the words they want to hear.

Each revolves around the concept of a helping hand, whether through developing ideas, providing office space or grabbing a slice of the action through investing.

The first ag incubator opened in a New York warehouse in 1959, before spreading to the UK and Europe. They are only now just emerging in Australia.

SproutX, which launched last September, is grabbing attention locally. It’s a joint venture between the National Farmers’ Federation and financial services firm Findex, with support from the Victorian Government and Victorian Farmers Federation.

SproutX general manager Sam Trethewey says an accelerator speeds up the commercialisation process of agtech businesses to get them “investment ready”.

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