‘Hands-free farming’ is a bit of a loaded term. To some it may sound like a dream come true; to others, a nightmare. In an era of chronic workforce constraints, augmented technology solutions to relieve the manual or intensive labour burden in agriculture are welcome, provided they improve (not impair) human decision-making. Of course, life on the land is not just about making money. It’s about working within natural systems to grow stuff. For some farmers, the idea of losing that connection to autonomous interventions is anathema.
Technology, regulation, and community trust all play a part in the future of farming, and the Digital Agrifood Summit kicked off this big discussion with a presentation by the inimitable Professor David Lamb. Dave touched on the importance of cyber-security, the role of agtech start-ups in “crashing in vs cashing in”, connectivity thresholds, capability limits and the power of human connections in maintaining agriculture’s social licence to operate. He emphasised that “hands-free” does not just mean the use of robots but also data and encouraged delegates to think less about the “what” of autonomous farming and more about the “why”. Considerations of work flow, monitoring, decision-making, safety and labour availability are the drivers of any successful tech transition.
I had the privilege of chairing the subsequent panel conversation with Steve Saunders, CEO of NZ-based Robotics Plus, Dr Sue Keay, chair of non-profit peak body Robotics Australia Group and Nick Ennis, NSW regional manager for Lawson Grains. These panellists discussed not only the practicalities of hands-free farming but also the important of digital tech in measuring and improving on-farm sustainability practices; the latter being an issue which has been front and centre in the Australian Farm Institute’s policy research agenda for the past few years.
Indeed, one of the key issues in developing the Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework with the NFF for the Department of Agriculture has been the data gaps which plague industry assessment of and action on sustainability goals. Increasingly, financial service providers (i.e. banks and insurers) are being required to report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets to cover risk, and in turn these organisations need visibility on the ESG-related activities of their clients. Sustainability is about business and capital longevity, not ephemeral ‘green’ goals. Autonomous farming has a role to play here in providing farm owners or managers with vital data about what’s being achieved and what needs to improve.
Four years ago, the Accelerating Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture (aka P2D) research project predicted that full adoption of digital agriculture could increase the GVP of agriculture by approximately 25 per cent - i.e. A$20.3bn¹.
If fully realised, digital agriculture thus has the potential to lift GVP from its current predicted A$73bn in 2021-22 tantalisingly close to the 2030 goal of A$100bn in pre-farm gate value. By improving enterprise efficiency and natural capital resilience, digital agriculture is also vital in meeting sustainability challenges in a resource-constrained future.
Much attention has been focused on the agtech space since publication of the P2D report, yet agriculture as an industry still has much to learn from other sectors. As Sue noted in the panel discussion, finding ways to break down barriers for a better flow of information and ideas from one sector (e.g. from defence to sectors like mining and agriculture) would be “really advantageous”.
Digital technologies are rapidly changing our social and economic environments, accelerated by the Covid-triggered exponential uptake of digital workflows. As a means of potentially ‘growing more with less’, hands-free farming is one of the most useful tools in a kit the ag sector must utilise to address the law of diminishing returns (exacerbated by climate change). With productivity growth all but stalled in the sector, it has never been more important to use digital tools to improve efficiency and sustainability.
Yet despite this significant value proposition, the adoption of digital technology is far from universal across Australian agriculture. Connectivity and capacity are significant stumbling blocks on the path to realising the full productivity gains which digital solutions offer the sector. Other questions which were highlighted in the Summit session included:
These issues are pretty high-level, but both Nick and Steve assured the Summit delegates that autonomous farming is a viable current opportunity, not a pipe dream, which is having measurable impact on the properties they manage. Hands-free may well be the next agricultural evolution, but it need not take a revolution to participate. By identifying areas which could be improved by introduction of robotics, artificial intelligence and/or autonomous data systems (value proposition), farmers can take small steps towards accessing the benefits of digital agriculture.
Provided, of course, that the wifi holds up ….
 Perrett, E., Heath, R., Laurie, A., & Darragh, L. (2017a). Accelerating precision agriculture to decision agriculture—Analysis of the economic benefit and strategies for delivery of digital agriculture in Australia. Australian Farm Institute.
About the author:
Katie McRobert is the general manager of the Australian Farm Institute. She is experienced in the fields of policy research, editing, communications, and project management and has an MBA with Distinction from Griffith University specialising in Sustainable Business. Katie is Chair of the inaugural CSIRO Drought Resilience Mission Advisory Group, and a member of the NSW Environmental Trust Biodiversity Technical Review Committee.