Look beyond the Akubra: farming isn't quaint, it's a hot bed of innovation

Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 01:09:33 PM. It's time to rethink this perception of agriculture as traditional. Farmers have always lead the way on innovation.

Reflecting on the future of the family farm Photo: Some 83 per cent of Australians would describe their connection with farming as "distant" or "non-existent". Little wonder the agricultural sector often goes unnoticed.

One of my fondest childhood memories is bouncing down potholed driveways on the back of a trailer, cushioned by wool packs.

You see, shearing time always coincided with the Royal Show and — as country kids know — nothing interferes with the cycle of mustering, shearing and backlining. Not even a trip to the show. So, we innovated; a dusty trailer was substituted for the imagined thrills of the Ferris wheel and dodgem cars.

Farmers, graziers and rural Australians are innovators by nature and necessity; quietly creating solutions to the inevitable challenges of primary production, geographic isolation and resource constraints.

New findings released by the National Farmers Federation today, to mark the first-ever National Agriculture Day, found 83 per cent of Australians would describe their connection with farming as "distant" or "non-existent". Little wonder, then, that innovation within the agricultural sector often goes unnoticed.

It's time to rethink this perception of agriculture as "quaint" and "traditional", celebrate the exciting innovations being developed in the sector, and encourage more creativity.

Not just bush mechanics

Innovation within agriculture comes in many forms: from plumbing engine exhausts into underground pipes in an attempt to store carbon in the soil (hint — this is not an Emissions Reduction Fund approved methodology); to re-purposing a couple of old Ford engines into a homemade battery system to store excess energy from the sun.

A robotic dairy milking a cow in a dairy shed Photo: A dairy cow in a robotic dairy in Bonn, Germany. (Brett Worthington)

From bush mechanics to the cutting edge, farmers and graziers embrace technology and work smarter. Today, it's commonplace to incorporate drones into property management, harvest satellite data to manage pasture growth rates, trial virtual fencing and explore robotic dairies. And then there's the mass adoption of GPS and auto-steer technologies.

Some like Mic Fels (a grain farmer from Esperance) have even added "app developer" to their farmer CV.

Innovation is not just confined to the big and bold, wacky or revolutionary. Deceptively simple innovations can increase resource use efficiency and save farmers thousands of dollars over the long term. For example, the "Shuttle Gauge", which allows you to efficiently measure chemical requirements, was designed by a Bencubbin farmer.

Our biggest test yet

As we look ahead to a period of increasing climate variability, our sector's capacity to come up with innovative solutions will be tested like never before. I believe agriculture is up to the task.

A white drone and control panel sits on a wooden rail in front of a shearing shed. Photo: Cameron Nield uses this drone to muster sheep on Benilkie Stataion, Balranald. (ABC Rural: Cara Jeffery )

In fact, I think the farm sector has the capacity to create the next "Tesla" of innovation — transforming the unimaginable of today, into the technology of tomorrow, with the typical farmer can-do attitude of "let's give this a crack". The most promising areas for innovation are:

Energy and fuel: We are heading into an era of peak oil and carbon constraints, with growing recognition that the agricultural sector must address vulnerabilities and reduce our emissions.

Many farmers and graziers are already leading the way in innovative approaches to bio-energy; integrating pulse crops into the rotation for on-farm fuel production and transforming the waste products of dairies and piggeries into a reliable source of on-farm energy.

Others are flocking to renewable energy solutions, and exploring behind-the-meter energy efficiency technologies.

Solar panels on the roof of a shed in front of rows of date palms on red dirt. Photo: Farmers are embracing innovation in the face of a changing climate. (ABC Rural: Katrina Beavan)

Waste products: A staggering 10 per cent of all food produced becomes waste before leaving the farm gate, costing the industry millions of dollars per year. Innovative approaches to supply chain management, refrigeration and storage technologies, farm waste recycling, and shifting market perceptions will all drastically reduce this. The National Food Waste Strategy, announced today, is a great step forward.

Business models and ecological accounting: Innovative farmers are leading the charge in incorporating ecosystem services into best-practice farm management, and working with natural landscapes to maximise nutrient cycling and productivity.

While swales, tree planting and pasture cropping are all "low tech" they showcase farmer innovation in a challenging environment.

As robotic technologies replace traditional workforces, our farmers and rural communities will need to embrace innovation for cooperative business models and industry development.

Emerging ag tech: There's been an explosion of agri-technologies. The recent Ag Tech Field Days in Central Queensland highlighted this rapidly expanding field which can help farmers and graziers manage critical soil moisture, map pasture growth rates and monitor remote solar pumps without leaving the homestead.

Dynamic farming future

Look beyond the Akubras, and you'll see an exciting industry that offers boundless opportunities. This AgDay, we invite the community to embrace the reality of modern farming, too.

Over the coming decades, Australian farmers will face compounding challenges of: producing more, while using less; an ageing workforce: a disengaged consumer; and a changing climate.

Innovation, efficiency and a world-renowned ingenuity will all play a critical role in making sure that farming in this country continues to thrive.

Verity Morgan-Schmidt is chief executive of Farmers for Climate Action.

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