Tech-savvy agros to thrive in small data age

Tech-savvy agros to thrive in data age


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The death of agronomists has been greatly exaggerated.

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“Big data is the elephant in the room – we know about it, we see it, but we don't know what it's doing,” - Aglink's Phil Hoult

“Big data is the elephant in the room – we know about it, we see it, but we don't know what it's doing,” - Aglink's Phil Hoult

IN THE age of technology and innovation the death of agronomists has been greatly exaggerated.

That’s according to AgLink’s Phil Hoult, who says farmers’ trusted advisors will evolve to reflect technology uptake and an increased focus on localised information – or small data – to improve farm output.

Mr Hoult was one of a host speakers to tackle the meeting of farming and tech at the Australian Farm Institute’s (AFI’s) two-day digital disruption in agriculture conference in Sydney last week.

The Aglink commercial manager of seed and technology joked that discussing the effectiveness of agronomists in an age of machines was dangerous territory, considering the 360 agronomists in his network.

Some might say ‘come on, you're going to do us out of a job’. I disagree. The role of agronomists will be more important than ever going forward. - Phil Hoult, Aglink

But he said we should see opportunity – not fear – when unfurling the sign that says “welcome robots”.

“Just like the advisor has morphed into the agronomist and become a vital part of farm businesses, so too will information technology and robotics,” Mr Hoult said.

“Some might say ‘come on, you're going to do us out of a job’. I disagree. The role of agronomists will be more important than ever going forward.”

AFI executive director Mick Keogh set the tone of the forum early with two key questions:

Is data and technology the next big revolution in ag?

And what policies and settings will allow Australia to optimise this change?

“We can all get excited about flash new technology but it doesn't matter if it can't be used properly,” Mr Keogh said.

Mr Hoult – himself an agronomist and business manager – said agribusinesses would see the focus shift from big data to small data with localised information fueling farmgate innovation.

“Big data is the elephant in the room – we know about it, we see it, but we don't know what it's doing,” he said.

“Some of the stuff we've got sitting in drawers, it’s not necessarily good data. It needs a brain to sit down and work through the bits and pieces.”

He said there would likely be less walking, and more talking.

“And you’ll probably see a number of different types of agronomists: IT agronomists, climatology, and relationship management.”

Mr Hoult estimated by 2020 data storage will increase 50-fold, connected devices will double to 50 billion, and $1.9 trillion US will be added to the global economy, 4 per cent of which will go to ag. 

Australian Centre for Field Robotics' director of innovation and research, Professor Salah Sukkarieh, says adopting a flexible business model is key to technology uptake.

Australian Centre for Field Robotics' director of innovation and research, Professor Salah Sukkarieh, says adopting a flexible business model is key to technology uptake.

Robots are here – make your farm adapt

MANY ideas shined brightly during the Australian Farm Institute’s digital disruption in agriculture forum – but none captured the imagination like Professor Salah Sukkarieh. 

The Sydney crowd was given a glimpse of the future by the director of research and innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, via a highlights reel of the on-farm technology it has produced. 

Many in the audience shook their heads at the ACFR’s work and ability of its robots now – be it planting, crop intelligence, pruning, or harvesting - let alone what levels could be reached in five or ten years time. 

Professor Sukkarieh said those nervous about the rise of the machines shouldn’t be. 

“The fundamental thing is how (a farmer will) change their operations and business models – how will they develop their farm to allow new technologies to be integrated and work,” he said. 

“The robot is coming, don't fear it, or doubt it. Standards will become very relevant very quickly. Cost of technology will also drop.”

Open data sharing model must be built on trust

GROWERS could benefit from open data systems – providing the trust, transparency and model is spot on - according to Ros Harvey of Yield Technology Solutions. 

Ms Harvey told the digital disruption forum that shared local data had the ability to produce better on-farm results. 

“But the challenge will be whether we'll have data markets or data monopolies,” she said. “Whether we create a healthy environment (for data), or if farms will be an outpost for some company.”

Teamwork, intelligence needed for ag to thrive

THERE are opportunities aplenty for Australian agriculture – providing we drive people-based solutions to overcome communication barriers, according to Precision Ag manager Tim Neale. 

With new satellite technology, remote monitoring and diagnostics, and better data clouds, the tools are there to harness farming’s potential.

But Mr Neal told the digital disruption in agriculture conference that it would require people to “bottle intelligence” and boost system capabilities. 

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