On October 11th and 12th, Wagga Wagga again played host to the Digital Agrifood Summit; a future-focused food and agriculture conference established by Food Agility CRC and Charles Sturt University. The event themed ‘Paddock to Profit’, now in its second year, aimed to demonstrate how Australian producers can increase value across the supply chain with the assistance of technology and digital insights. Yet, whether it was when attendees stood staring into the black of night at the Gulbali Stargazing Gala or got dust on their shiny boots during tours of the CSU Global Digital Farm, there was one four-letter word uttered more than any other: data.
There was one four-letter word uttered more than any other – Data!
Overwhelmingly, the sentiment across the event was that in order to future proof our agricultural industries, we need to better capture, verify, analyse and share data, both on-farm and across the supply chain. Whether it’s the need for farmers to meet proposed new regulations or offtake requirements, achieve premiums for their products, access global markets or new forms of finance, it all comes back to the quality and quantity of data at hand.
Data in demand
In recent years, the topic of data has become a keen focus for events and gatherings across the agricultural and food industries. In many ways, however, data has always played a critical role in agricultural production – whether when fattening cattle, estimating yields, or applying fertiliser. It’s just that now, there is an increasing focus on the type of data collected and the growing demand for that information from an off-farm source.
On Day 1 of the Summit, this debate played out for a mixed panel of farmers, AgTech founders, start-up advisors and bankers who discussed how producers can avoid being left behind in the digital transition and what role the finance sector will play in the adoption of technology. Naturally, a rosy picture was painted by the banks on how they’re supporting farmers to capture appropriate data and be rewarded for their on-farm practices in the form of new green finance.
However, the farming-focussed panellists had a different perspective, suggesting that many new green lending mechanisms are incredibly complex, ill-thought out and not fit-for-purpose for many farming operations.
It became evident during this session that a power-struggle is emerging in this loudening data debate – on one hand, the commercial, financial, and corporate entities who desire the data to satisfy their ESG credentials (and may well soon be forced to collect it), and on the other, the farmers and landowners who are the ones tasked with creating it all.
Run before we Walk
As Day 2 of the Summit got underway, the focus on data remained, yet much of what was said was defined by the questions which can’t yet be answered.
How do we ensure secure and confident data-sharing between our farmers, technology providers and industry as it becomes increasingly digitised?
If a farmer creates a package of data which is passed to an external party who adds further value to it, who gets rewarded for that?
How can we assist producers to become price makers not price takers in an increasingly unpredictable market?
These swirling questions highlighted how, as an industry, we can’t allow ourselves to get distracted by what’s on the horizon. Instead, we need to focus on what can be done now to ensure our producers can achieve tangible outcomes and benefits.
This very challenge was raised in one of the last sessions of the Summit. A panel discussion was opened by a compelling keynote from Su McCluskey of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry urging us to do more to showcase our ‘clean and green’ agriculture ambitions to the world.
Following this, Josie Angus, a Director of Angus Pastoral Company which manages over 400,000 acres in Central and Northern Queensland, brought home the need to start from the ground-up. Josie noted that, even at an event such as the Summit, there is too much attention focused on corporate ESG needs, at the expense of real productivity and sustainability outcomes on-farm.
These comments reinforce a common sentiment shared by the farming community – that there remains a gap between the industries perspectives around data, ESG, traceability and market access, and the realities faced by many farmers.
Back to basics
All in all, the intriguing Digital Agrifood Summit demonstrated that, as an industry, we need to ensure we don’t leave producers behind in the pursuit of being future proofed and data driven.
- For many producers, this means simply getting started; doing away with the pen and paper and using digital records, establishing a baseline, or utilising technology platforms to start collecting simple forms of data.
- For the AgTech providers, it means getting out there to demonstrate first-hand the tangible value of their solutions and the achievable return on investment at a paddock level.
- And for the industry, it means however tempting it is to stargaze, don’t forget to look down at your feet.