7 Questions with AgLink CEO Bill Dowdle and Tech Manager Phil Hoult on Aussie AgTech over the Last Decade

June 21, 2016

Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly stated that Bill Dowdle is stepping down from his tenure as CEO of AgLink. We apologize for the misstatement.

Bill Dowdle currently serves as the CEO of Melbourne-based AgLink, a collection of 19 independent family-owned businesses operating in the agricultural sector in all Australian states and territories. Founded in 1987, the group assists Australian farmers with growing quality, sustainable food and fiber by providing agronomy advice and supply input products. AgLink maintains a network of 350 agronomists while its members generate $1.2 billion in annual revenue. According to the company, it holds an estimated 25% share of the Australian agricultural chemical market, 15% of the fertilizer market and 45% of the horticulture market.

Before joining AgLink, Dowdle worked with T Systems Australia, a irrigation technology manager. Prior to that he managed a large rural retail and fruit packing operation in North Queensland and later managed a wide-ranging network of rural outlets across northern Australia. With over 40 years of experience in the Australian sector in a variety of positions throughout the supply chain, Dowdle has unique insight into Australian agriculture and how agtech has developed in this market.

AgFunderNews recently caught up with Dowdle and AgLink’s technology manager Phil Hoult to learn more about the duo’s take on the Aussie agtech during the last ten years.

Bill, what was your view of the Australian ag sector when you started at AgLink 10 years ago?

BD: I have been involved with Australian agriculture for the past 40 years. During the last 10, agriculture was not seen as an important part of the Australian economy at that time as the mining boom was in full flight. Now that mining is in decline, agriculture is seen as being very important for the future of Australia. Being involved in food production is very important for the security of all.

How have you seen the sector change during the last decade in terms of technology adoption, product management, technology usage, innovation, chemical usage, animal health, etc.?

BD: The sector has become much more professional. Farming is now highly capital intensive. New technology is critical in terms of new products to improve production outcomes and new technologies to assist in management for farming for better decision, etc.

PH: Obviously in the past 10 years, the iPhone and iPad (smart phones) have allowed for a revolution in farm planning and agronomy information applications. On farm, GPS, and auto steer have increased precision ag function for planting and spraying, etc., and are pretty much an affordable standard on all new equipment. There is a lot of hype around IoT but we are yet to see upscale commercialization in the field. As a potential decision support tool for farming, this is exciting. The use of platforms for zonal management of cropping land is also greatly aiding the precision nature of cereal and summer farming which is a positive for farmers and agronomists.

What are the strongest aspects of Australia’s agriculture industry? What are its weaker aspects?

BD: The scale and geographic diversity of Australia is a real positive. Australia is a very big country. The location of Australia to Asian markets is a positive as is political stability. Australian farmers are quick to use new technology to help increase output. Australian food has a very good reputation for being very clean and green.

Weaknesses include climatic variability like drought, lack of skills in agriculture, labor costs, and limited capital locally to invest in farming. In some parts of Australia infrastructure to support farming enterprises can be an issue.

Do you think any categories of agtech will face adoption challenges?

PH: Big data will because much of the historical data is variable, poor quality, and not organized. We all know the data exists, but no one knows what to do with it. Drones are popular for aesthetic reasons but their function in agriculture to crop scout etc is relatively new. Operator skill in the interim is a draw back as are the government regulations regarding licensing for commercial use. Any application that requires connectivity is effected by wide spread lack of decent coverage. The large number of data sources being accumulated is also at risk due to inadequate internet capacity in rural areas. Agronomists also require increased training and uptake to help farmers adopt new technology. They are a key enabler in this point, but uptake is at risk if they are not bought along for the ride.

What role do you see agriculture technology playing in Australia and world’s agricultural future?

BD: The development and adoption of new technology is critical to maximizing production opportunities available in agriculture. This is true globally. Farming is about using scarce soil and water, along with air and sunlight resources to sustainably to produce food by harnessing the natural biological process available to us, like photosynthesis for example. Farming systems have developed throughout our history to become very complex production systems. To maintain and increase the output globally to meet the increasing demand for food, every effort and technology available will be needed if we are to have a chance in the longer term to feed the world population.

PH: We compete in a global market with our commodities and as such we need to grow higher yields, maximize ROI from inputs from our limited farming land and best optimize cost. This on the driest continent on earth. Technology adoption to support this is vital to manage the variable nature of farming in Australia.

Does technology apply to farmers equally throughout Australia, or does it mainly cater to larger operations?

BD: Technology is available to all farmers but in some instances with early adoption, capital costs may restrict uptake to larger scale farms. Generally, tech is getting cheaper and more affordable to all. At the moment growers are restricted more by variability in connectivity and poor internet in country regions than capital to invest given money is relatively cheap to borrow at present

The introduction of better GM and hybrid varieties as a technology that has advanced yields is restricted, however, by a government moratorium on GM use. This risks impacting the ability of farmers to manage complex resistance and production issues on farm such as rising selective herbicide and insecticide resistance.

Bill, are there any other comments or observations you’d like to add regarding your tenure as AgLink’s CEO?

BD: It is great to be part of this very admirable occupation of farming and food production. AgLink is one small part in a very complex mix of enterprises being part of Agribusiness. Hopefully we are doing our part in helping farmers understand and adopt new technologies that will help us all. The sad fact is that the majority of the population in modern western economies has lost touch with where their food comes from. Australia is a very coastal urbanized population where this is a fact.

Are you familiar with the Aussie agtech space either as an investor, startup, incubator/accelerator, or otherwise? Give us your take on the space: lmanning@agfunder.com or Tweet me @lo_manning.

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