Digitalization Creates New Cash Cows in Australian Farming

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreyPopov

Australia’s National Farmers Federation has a goal for the nation’s agriculture industry to be worth AUD100 billion at the farm gate by 2030. It is a figure matched by estimates of the potential size of the country’s growing agtech industry.

Implicit in the NFF goals is that the industry, widely projected to be worth AUD80 billion by 2030 at the current rate of growth, won’t get to its AUD100 billion without the widespread digitalization of agriculture.

At the same time, a vibrant agtech industry is growing up alongside traditional farming. And according to the Australian Information Industry Association, the industry itself could be worth AUD100 billion by 2030.

Finding a global market

Tertiary institutions are responding, with Melbourne Polytechnic and the University of Southern Queensland both offering new courses in agricultural technology from next year.

The potential of Australia’s agtech industry, of course, is not just domestic but completely international and already there are signs that innovations developed in Australia can find a global market.

A Canadian agtech company SemiosBio Technologies recently paid A$100 million for Australian company Agworld, which offers real-time crop data and pest management support for farmers growing fruits, nuts, and other permanent crops.

Grape growers in France and Southern California, meanwhile, are taking an interest in an Australian technology that blasts microwaves into the soil to kill weed and fungi and eliminates the need for herbicides.

"It won’t be too many years before technology will take farmers out of the field and immerse them in the world of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence”

Recent trials on strawberry farms in the state of Victoria recently found the technology eliminated 95% of fungal diseases.

The technology has been developed out of the University of Melbourne and is being commercialized through a new company called Growave, which has just raised AUD5 million in capital.

Today, the microwave machine is towed behind a tractor going row to row, but the future vision is for the technology to be solar-powered and mounted on an autonomous vehicle that is able to perform spot weeding.

Robots are also busy in the Australian dairy industry. Tasmania is home to the world’s largest pasture-based robotic farm, where 900 cows are milked by a team of 16 robots.

Global Digital Farm

The theme of autonomous farming and the use of robotics is one of the key themes of many agtech initiatives and is at the heart of a project by Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga to build the Global Digital Farm (GDF).

The concept is to build Australia’s first “fully automated commercial farm” to demonstrate the future of farming through robotics and artificial intelligence.

According to food Sustainability expert professor Niall Blair, the GDF is a commercial operation, educational facility, and community outreach facility rolled into one.

“This ambitious and unique project will arm Australia’s primary industries workforce with knowledge and technology in crucial fields like data analytics, geospatial mapping, remote sensing, machine learning, and cybersecurity,” Blair said.

Private investor Food Agility is involved in the GDF. The company’s chief executive Richard Norton said the reality of “hands-free” farming was closer than many realized and would be accelerated by the development of technology pioneered at the GDF.

“Full automation is not a distant concept, there are already mines in the Pilbara operated entirely through automation,” he said.

“It won’t be too many years before technology will take farmers out of the field and immerse them in the world of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.”

Initiatives such as the GDP show that Australian agriculture is on the cusp of its own digital transformation, and some of those initiatives can be exported to the world.

As National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simon said recently in launching the organization’s whitepaper Connecting Australian Agriculture, the AUD100 billion by 2030 goal relied on farmers successfully “capturing the transformative opportunities of digital agriculture.”

“It’s our goal that by 2030, every Australian farm has access to the infrastructure and skills needed to connect to the internet of things. It’s now time to focus on increasing the digital literacy of our regional communities and to increase the awareness of the exciting future of digital agriculture.”

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborating with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreyPopov