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Society of Precision Agriculture Australia

What Agtech Can Learn from Precision Ag Veterans

August 28, 2017

Editor’s Note: Sarah Nolet is founder and CEO of food and agtech consultancy AgThentic. Based in Australia, Nolet recently attended an event organized by the Society of Precision Agriculture Australia and here offers some thoughts about where they might be gaps between farmers, and what they want from precision ag tech, and agtech entrepreneurs.

This year the Society of Precision Agriculture Australia (SPAA), a membership organization that supports the development and adoption of precision agriculture, is celebrating 20 years at the forefront of bringing technology to agriculture. SPAA is a community of farmers, agronomists, technology developers, and researchers that bridges the gap between the practical realities of agriculture, and the rigorous academic research and cutting edge technologies emerging from academia.

Here are a few lessons for new agtech entrants from an organization that’s been around since before agtech was cool.

Importance of the voice of the farmer

At the 2017 SPAA symposium, five farmers from across industries including livestock, horticulture, and sugarcane shared their stories, taking the audience on a journey of technology adoption. By combining the voice of the farmer with presentations on the latest technologies and research outcomes, SPAA gave the audience a taste of the future potential of precision agriculture while remaining grounded in today’s industry challenges, both perceived and real.

Andrew Christian of GrainGrowers, an event sponsor, explained the value of featuring farmers at SPAA events. “Because they stay focused on the applications of technologies, SPAA has a strong resonance among the farming community. Having farmers talk about real world applications helps others get up to speed on the best practices for technology adoption, data management, and generally how to run their businesses more precisely.”

For agtech entrepreneurs and researchers hoping to commercialize their findings, hearing from and talking to farmers is critical. Reading between the lines of a farmer’s story can help highlight pain points that may be opportunities for products or services. Insights ranged from simple challenges like the need to import data (“why can’t I just upload a shapefile?”) to more complex user experience questions, like how to design a dashboard that builds user trust by striking a balance between access to data and actionable recommendations for critical management decisions.

Elevating the voice of the farmer is a core tenant of all SPAA events. The group holds regular workshops around Australia, providing an environment for early adopters to share their lessons with agronomists and other farmers who are less familiar with precision agriculture.

Taking the first step to agtech adoption

Though many of the farmers on stage at the symposium are already harvesting the benefits of precision agriculture, other farmers are not even sure how to get started. According to Nicole Dimos, executive officer for SPAA:

“Though the perception of precision agriculture is changing and farmers are seeing more value, there’s still a spectrum of adoption: some are simply installing a weather station and using the data to make more precision management decisions; others have all the bells and whistles. Hearing about all the data these advanced farmers are using can be inspiring, but it can also be intimidating for those who lack the infrastructure and IT systems to handle the abundance of data.”

The challenges of an uncertain value proposition and an unclear first step toward adoption are still pervasive among farmers and agronomists. One carrot and onion farmer, for example, explained his frustration with precision agriculture: “I don’t get why we’re recording all this data because it’s still just not clear what to do with it. It’s overwhelming, getting expensive, and I don’t even know where to start.”

The SPAA symposium raised two possible solutions. The first is to look at the books. Mike Krause, an industry veteran and farm business consultant, recommends that farmers conduct a business assessment and use financial data to build a business case for technology adoption. The results may be surprising: Stefan Schmitt, a farmer and agronomic adviser in South Australia, explained that until he ran the numbers, he was convinced even the first step was out of reach. Krause has now developed a software solution, P2P Agri, to digitize this process.

A second solution may be evolving the data management support capabilities available to, and easily accessible by, farmers. If farmers, often assisted by their agronomists, can make sense of the data that are already being collected, the path to further technology adoption is much more enticing. Farm equipment is a good place to start: machines are often already collecting data that can be used to improve decision making, or simple additions (e.g., a secondhand yield monitor) can be retrofitted.

Using flashy tech to engage future generations

Like most agtech conferences, the SPAA symposium featured futuristic robots, drones, and other sexy emerging technology solutions with potential agricultural applications. No doubt, folks are excited about the potential of these technologies, but the key use case highlighted at the symposium was a very different one: engaging the next generation of ag industry talent.

At The University of Queensland Gatton Campus, professor Kim Bryceson has built virtual and physical laboratories where students can build and experiment with flashy agricultural technologies. From building their own drones and then using them in projects to learn about spatial variability, to virtual reality simulations focused on supply chain traceability, students are working on critical industry challenges as they build up technical capabilities.

The need for the next generation to become tech savvy is clear, as is the importance of getting kids excited about opportunities in agriculture. Professor Bryceson called teachers to action saying, “we need to get our heads around buzzwords like IoT and big data because they can help get kids excited about developing specialist skills that will continue to become critical for agriculture.”

A call to action for the agtech community

Leveraging the expertise of long-standing organizations like SPAA is critical to bridging the gap between the tech, agtech, and agriculture communities. According to Andrea Koch, SPAA member, agtech consultant and recent graduate of the SproutX pre-accelerator program:

“SPAA highlights the essence of how technologies are being adopted in agriculture, and how they have been adopted for over twenty years. The emerging agtech industry needs to respect what organizations like SPAA do and tap into the base of knowledge they’ve created. Without this, we risk wasting time and money, and missing out on huge existing value.”

Agtech startups are already seeing value in SPAA’s ability to bridge these gaps. Anastasia Volkova, CEO of agtech startup Flurosat, says that the SPAA community has been a great resource to find early adopter agronomists, get user feedback, and “compare notes with researchers who are pushing the boundaries of remote sensing capabilities in agriculture.”

SPAA is excited about additional collaborations with the agtech community and open to supporting agtech startups. As Dimos explains, SPAA “would love to have more startups engage with our community and use SPAA as a resource to help bring more valuable technologies to the agriculture industry”.

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