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What will be the Uber of Agriculture?

Dairy farming has changed a lot since each farming family had a few cows, which were hand-milked into a bucket, hand-churned to butter, or taken a short distance to a collection point and the end product consumed within a small radius of where it was grown. 

Digital revolution

Now 1,000 cow herds are not uncommon, newly-built dairy sheds have as much automation as a sophisticated manufacturing plant, and the milk can travel hundreds of kilometers to where it is processed and thousands of kilometers to where it is ultimately consumed. A lot of this change was driven by the industrial revolution – now we are in the digital revolution. So what change is this bringing?

The terms big data, analytics, data mining, the cloud, convergence and connectivity are what we are all grappling with now. On today’s farm, data is being collected at an ever-increasing rate, often automatically. Individual electronic tags on animals, weigh scales, milk meters, GPS tracking on anything that moves, computer chips in every piece of equipment or machinery, satellite imagery, pasture measurement, soil mapping, water metering, animal health – the list is extensive. 

As broadband speeds are improving through rural New Zealand, combined with increased cell phone coverage and the large number of smartphones users, all this data can get to the cloud with an ease, speed and reliability that even five years ago would not have been possible. All the ingredients for digital disruption are in place.

Changing consumer trends

Running alongside the digital revolution is a change in how consumers want to interact with food. Food security is not something we worry about in New Zealand, but is increasingly important in many of our export markets. Food safety and sustainable production are also significant considerations – as are eating locally, eating in season, and eating food that has not required any type of exploitation in production.

Social media

The other major change to put into the mix is social media. We now live in a world where an event, real or fabricated, can be known all over the world in a few short hours. Along with the speed and spread of messages they are largely driven by ordinary people, not controlled or monitored or massaged, but just what they actually think. 

This can be positive and empowering – those consumers who on the other side of the world want to feel connected to the food they eat can follow the blog of a farmer in New Zealand – complete with pictures of green grass, happy cows and smiling children. However they also can read stories of when things do not match up to their expectations of sustainable, local and ethical production.

Reducing environmental footprint

So what does all this mean for New Zealand agriculture and for businesses that help farmers manage nitrogen, effluent and water? There are three important drivers that will influence the scope and rate of change:

  • Farmers still need to go out every day and do farming activities – like irrigate effluent and water – to be profitable businesses and to generate the economic activity New Zealand depends on and wants to grow
  • Technology is enabling many of these day-to-day activities to be done better, smarter and faster – and the underpinning technologies are changing at an ever-increasing rate
  • There is a burning platform for changing practice in New Zealand agriculture driven by the National Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management  – doing the same or more of the same is not an option.

Put simply – farming has to keep evolving to meet the values and needs of our consumers. Today that means that we have to reduce our environmental footprint and create more value for each unit of output. Technology is an enabler that will play a large role, but to have an impact on changed behaviors it has to connect to what farmers do every day.

Technology benefits

One of the challenges of getting an significant changed practice in any area of farming is convincing individual farmers that by doing things differently, their outcomes will not be negatively impacted. While there is a requirement to reduce leaching to meet the goals of the National Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management, showing farmers that being more efficient with resources can also improve productivity and profitability, will amplify the rate of change. Technology also enables this by allowing wider and wider sources of data and information to be brought together to build the story of the real gains that can be achieved.  Matching up efficient irrigation with pasture growth and milk production, then reporting on the value of milk per unit of water used for example will reinforce the economic value of efficiently using water. If at the same time as knowing what the right action is for today, the economic value of yesterday’s right decision also appears, this reinforces the new behavior and gives confidence that they are not being disadvantaged – but the opposite.

Embracing change

The growth in technology underpinning farm decision-making is not an either/or scenario. There is a lot of discussion on the development of artificial intelligence and what this might mean in the future. But right now there are limitations on what a computer programme can know, just as there are on how much data and complex relationships the human brain can store and process. Put together, the outcome is the best. A farmer who has access to farm-specific data, science and best practice management and puts this alongside what they see and hear and feel when out on their farm is going to come to the best decisions day-to-day for their farm and the environment.

Ultimately it is farmers who go out and day-to-day undertake the jobs that lead to growing grass, and making milk and meat that generate value for the whole economy.

There are already many powerful technologies and solutions available to farmers to do these jobs better, smarter or faster. However farmers are people and have the same barriers to change as everyone else. Providers of technology solutions for farmers have to ensure that how we package up all this amazing technology fits with the people concerned and how they work day-to-day. Get that right and there are significant advances in profitability and environmental outcomes to be captured.

Digital disruption has brought us, for example, Uber which is transforming how we get from place to place without driving ourselves. This is through using technologies like GPS, connectivity, Google maps and smartphone apps. In a very short space of time has, Uber has leveraged the internet, social media and the psychology of tapping into what makes us comfortable with change. 

In agriculture we are using the same things – GPS, connectivity, Google maps and smartphone apps. The advances in technology in the areas of GPS, sensors, telemetry, the cloud, connectivity and analytics are enabling data collected at the farm to come together with science knowledge and best practice guidelines to provide farmers with near-real-time decision support tools. With these tools New Zealand farmers should be able to meet the challenge of reducing their environmental footprint while improving profitability – meeting our consumers’ expectations and aspirations for the food they consume.

Bridgit Hawkins

CEO/Executive Director