‘Sky is blue’ research, not ‘blue sky’ research

Agtech Central editor, Sam Trethewey, November 8, 2018

ABARES, the science and economics research division of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, has released findings that suggest the organisation might believe Sidney Kidman still breathes, George V is still King and the telegram, until now, has been our preferred tool for distance communication.

I kid you not, the Bureau’s latest ‘research’ report released last week states that “New information and communications technology (ICT) could deliver the next wave of productivity growth in Australian agriculture”.

The study (see a summary of some of its key findings here) is backed by research that reveals farmers are actually using telephony and personal computing devices to manage business. In other breaking news, the sky is blue, the Pope is Catholic and John Deeres are green and yellow.

At a time when there is rapid technological change, with new products and services popping up all over the country, our Department of Ag thought it would be fun to aggregate a few surveys and release ‘new research’ about how farmers can use phones and computers.

Of these groundbreaking ‘key findings’ (based on surveys conducted in 2016-2017), some of my personal favourites include:

“Examples of ICT used on farms range from computers and telephones through to things like GPS guided harvesting equipment.”

“Farmers used ICT for production activities, internet commerce, obtaining information and household purposes.”

“Internet commerce allows the purchase of goods or services quickly and conveniently and is increasingly available to farmers to make and receive orders online.”

“ICT applications on farms varied between industries. For example, GPS-enabled technologies are widely used on vegetable and grain farms, and electronic identification and herd management tools are commonly used on dairy farms.”

“The availability and quality of internet services influences farmers’ access to and use of ICT.”

The taxpayer-backed research worked out, by interviewing 2200 farmers, that producers actually use phones, computers and keyboards to help run their operations and concluded that larger farms with more scale and profit tend to spend more on ICT than smaller, less profitable producers.

Either it’s a prank, someone published something from the Howard-Costello era, or heads need checking at ABARES.

This comes at a time when agricultural research is coming under (another) review, this time a directive from the Big Cheese himself, the Minister for Agriculture, head of the department.

Which begs the question… when will these researchers be told to look for and research things that may generate some sort of social or economic return? And when will industry start prioritising itself, its future and funds over the school fees and mortgages of researchers who seem to be the only ones benefiting from this piss and wind?

We’re at the beginning of a wave that’s fuelling startups, attracting tens of millions of dollars and pulling in fresh talent, all aimed at solving commercially relevant problems throughout the sector, on farm and in the supply chain. This is a huge opportunity for researchers to actually research real problems, find inefficiencies and use funding to identify 21st century challenges in industry.

If they’re hard up for inspiration, getting out of the lab or office to many of the agri events to speak with humans who have skin in the game would leave them with a list to fill a lifetime or five.

From moves in horticulture to decentralised markets, traceability of food from inside the gate to plates overseas, better enabling farmers with financial technology to de-risk and increase margins, hell, even researching the $1.2 billion agtech fail that is drones might save some newcomers some time, energy and money.

The list goes on, and it’s near endless. Instead, we’re served up the bleeding obvious, left unsatisfied and questioning the relevance of certain people, functions and organisations.

Who knows, maybe it’s a Canberra thing?!

Meanwhile in Victoria, Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford is rigging up commercial farms with sensors and networks and inviting agtech from around the world to plug and play. It’s the cornerstone investment of $27 million allocated to digital agriculture. Someone tell ABARES there’s a few farmers around who are looking beyond UHF radios.

We have so much opportunity to catch up with many other agricultural nations around the world when it comes to effective research that has meaningful impact on the industry; but it will take strong leadership to get there.

In the meantime though, it’s good to know we all use phones and computers.


About Sam Trethewey

Sam Trethewey is from a farming family and has worked across Australia and overseas on most major commodities including beef, wool, lamb and cropping. He co-founded SproutX, Australia’s first and largest agtech accelerator and investment fund where he spent nearly three years developing an ecosystem of support for agtech startups. He has been a regular commentator on agriculture through print, radio and online and has recently started his own food production company whilst also working as Head of Brand for Redhanded, a rural and regional communications specialist.

Questions? If you’ve got an agtech topic you’d like Sam to tackle, please email [email protected]



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  1. Sam Trethewey, November 18, 2018

    Hi Peter. Agfunder research shows investors (mostly US) have blown around this figure on startups focused on drones, with little to no ROI. Poor across the board. Whilst i see you feedback talks to potential results of the future, investors are looking for aquisitions, exits and investment rounds now. Their value is often driven by realised revenue. Which most drone businesses are failing on. Their implementation on farm is not driving bottom line results in most cases. Whilst they will find a place, they’ve been a classic case of a tech looking for a problem to solve, which usually ends badly. Opposed to identifying a problem, then seeking the best tools or tech to solve it.

  2. Peter Borella, November 12, 2018

    I laughed along with you until I came to the bit where you talked about the “$1.2 Billion agtech drone fail” then I realised ABARE aren’t the only ones being a little careless with their research before writing. That is silly talk. Drones are here to stay, and are getting more sophisticated every day in their usefulness to farmers. Early claims of “checking the fences and the stock” were a little careless and premature but they are here for the long term. There will be spray drones that will carry 100’s of litres to apply safely to crops, others that will stay aloft for hours doing detailed crop survey and
    infraRed analysis that will more useful than satellite imagery in the near future. New cameras and autonomous drones are appearing regularly now, each one a big jump forward in technology advancements. Some are being used in crop scouting, seeding establishment counting and high resolution InfraRed crop mapping that are proving to be very useful time and labour saving machines.

  3. Max Winders, November 8, 2018

    I share the author’s frustration with the inability of government to connect with the science involved in agriculture and animal industries. We no longer have access to locally-based and experienced extension officers who can pass on the results of government-funded research but instead have to deal with ministerial policy advisers who have no connection at all to what individual agricultural enterprises are achieving and so-called “peak bodies” who very little access to real science and research and are, in effect, just lobbyists.

  4. Jennifer Wainwright, November 8, 2018

    I had to have a chuckle at your article Sam, but in truth, this is no laughing matter. It raises the very real and ongoing issue we have with industry data and research for primary industry in Australia. I have been known to be very vocal on my disappointment and point-blank distrust for ABARES data on industry, which any of us in the business knows, is non-representative of reality, antiquated and deficient in collection method. This report only highlights this to a new extreme. I think it is possibly a Canberra thing, or at least a bureaucratical department thing. I did actual meet some of the people from ABARES at an NTCA conference once – getting out and getting feedback from those with skin in didn’t change a thing – so let’s hope the Big Cheese can have more of an effect, for as you pointed out, we are in an unprecedented time of opportunity; of capital attraction to industry, supply chain and technology development; of rapid change and transition. Never before has there been a more important time to have accurate data, research that delivers insight and a basic affinity from our tax-payer funded departments.
    Bravo on the on point article.

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