AgTech: Where agriculture meets technology

Welcome to Turf ‘n’ Surf, a podcast that tells stories in Queensland’s farming, fishing, biosecurity and forestry sectors.

The equipment and practices used in the agriculture industry have evolved over time as new technologies and knowledge have emerged to give produces increased ability maximise both the quality and quantity of their products.

This episode of Turf’n’Surf, looks at how Queensland’s agripreneurs are merging agriculture with technology to get AgTech onto their farms, innovatively harvesting modern technology to keep their businesses productive and competitive.

You’ll hear from Balonne Shire Council Mayor Samantha O’Toole, producer and agripreneur Andrew Sevil, and AgTech Sector Engagement Officer for the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Jason Huggins.

Find out how Queensland producers are taking a time-honoured can-do approach to solving 21st century problems to keep their businesses thriving and how the Queensland Government is supporting their efforts to improve the agriculture industry’s efficiency and profitability.

Queensland agribusinesses looking to adopt new technology to transform their business now have a place to start their journey. For knowledge, inspiration, assistance and essential contacts visit AgTech-Growing your future.

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Meet our guests

Andrew Sevil
Samantha O'Toole
Jason Huggins

Transcript

Program intro: Welcome to Turf and Surf, powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. It’s a saying that has stood the test of time and still has relevance in our fast-paced, hi-tech, modern society. It’s also very much a maxim for those involved in the agriculture industry.

Those who make their living off the land have, over millennia, repeatedly demonstrated an amazing capacity to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems that threaten their livelihood. The equipment and practices used in the agriculture industry have evolved over time as new technologies and knowledge have emerged to give producers increased ability to maximise both the quality and quantity of their products.

In contemporary society, keeping up with the ever-increasing pace of change is just one more challenge. Another more exciting challenge is harvesting that innovation that helps keep agribusinesses both productive and competitive.

I’m Brad Muir. In this episode of Turf’n’Surf, we’ll look at how Queensland’s agripreneurs are getting AgTtech onto farms, helping to merge agriculture with technology.

We’ll examine how Queensland producers are taking a time-honoured can-do approach to solving 21st century problems to keep their businesses thriving. And how the Queensland Government is supporting their efforts to improve the agriculture industry’s efficiency and profitability.

Program segue: You’re listening to Turf and Surf, the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: Balonne Shire Council Mayor Samantha O’Toole grew up in a farming family in Canada and has lived and worked in the Balonne area for 20 years.

Samantha and her husband Jason have run an aerial agriculture business for 14 years. Agribusiness is in her blood. And, as a Balonne Shire Councillor since 2016, Samantha has an informed insight into the problems producers face in harnessing digital technology.

Thanks for your time Samantha. I suspect many people who live in the city would have only a very vague idea of how technology has impacted those who work on the land. For most people slow speeds when downloading a movie or television series or playing a game is about as annoying as it gets. It’s only when banking or payment services are impacted that it really gets serious.

But in regional and remote areas internet issues pose far more serious problems. Can you give us an idea of the problems that a lack of connectively causes producers?

Samantha O’Toole: We in the Balonne Shire are taking a strategic approach.

It was identified that agricultural uptake of digital technology was very high is because local producers weren’t getting access to a network to be able to maximise production, you know use product technology to make informed farming decisions, we decided to tackle it across the board in the shire and take a real strategic approach to improving digital technology to improve the economic outcome of the shire long term.

Host: What impact does that lack of connectivity have on both business and the community?

Samantha O’Toole: Well it’s a double-edge sword really.

If you look at the primary producers in our area you know there is some fantastic technology, simple as you know water processes they might have in to be able to assess watering programs that they’re doing or you know making informed decisions with their agronomist. If they don’t have access to the data and the information that they need they’re not making the best decisions they can to manage their property.

Technology can be used for you know monitoring livestock that are far away from the home property, to be able to control watering points for them. And we’ve just seen producers time and time again come to the council and to the shire to say by not getting access to a decent network they weren’t using the technology that they could to the maximum and therefore they weren’t making great business decisions.

And I suppose the other flow-on is for businesses that might be support to agriculture or sit in our traditional main street we had really poor digital connectivity for the whole shire. So, if you were uploading or downloaded masses of data, you were struggling with that, and we’ve actually seen it as a blocking point. It was holding businesses in our shire back.

And if we could remove that blocking point you know their opportunities going forward were really positive.

So, I suppose that’s why council took a very broad point of view, is there a way we could you know improve digital technology for our farmers and our producers and then hand in hand our businesses that sit beside them would also improve and have opportunity going forward.

Host: So that lack of connectivity has really been a handbrake on producers and agribusiness. How have they been overcoming those issues?

Samantha O’Toole: Well, originally the shire did a digital technology strategy and we looked at you know what were the blockades, what were the opportunities, and we spent a lot of time discussing with primary producers whether we took a road path that really improved the digital connectivity or the mobile network.

And what were the plusses and negatives of doing either one of those systems. And with the consultation that we did with the agricultural community we decided the best way forward for us to get the best impact in Balonne was to go the digital connectivity route. And then obviously by the size of our shire being 31,000 square kilometres, having seven towns and a massive agricultural district that sits around it we couldn’t do that in one step.

So we took a staged approach with it. At this stage, we currently have five stages that we’re looking at implementing. And we sought funding under the Building Our Regions funding to implement the first stage, which we were successful in last year. And we’re currently in a almost construction phase of the first one. Since then we were able to get funding for stage three, stage four, and we’re currently seeking funding for stage five.

So each stage looks at the strategic area within the shire. You know really where we could get our biggest bang for the buck. How many farms could we cover in stage one. That looked about 30 percent of the shire we could get covered in stage one. In stages three to four, that are currently funded, we can add about approximately an additional 10 per cent.

So, by the end of these three stages that we’re building at the moment, we’ll have you know already 40 per cent of the shire covered, have really good digital connectivity. And we’ve done a lot of work around you know what the upside will be for farmers.

And as we build those towers, we’ll also work with our farmers about maximising any use of those towers and really get the end-user on board if you know what I mean Brad.

Host: So Samantha, Balonne Shire Council’s obviously being very proactive in this space. What’s the gold standard though? What’s the level of service that producers need to run their businesses as efficiently as possible?

Samantha O’Toole: Well we’re really looking at an end game of 100-100.

So 100 up and down speed and being able to provide that across the entire shire so that farmers can access the technology. That allows them underneath that you know 100-100 to do other things.

They may have a network on farm that beams up into that digital connectivity and it just allows, you know, all their equipment and different probes and sensors and stuff that they want to use on the farm to access that network.

It also allows them to do simple things, you know, like doing their banking and being able to access a great mobile network or great digital network to be able to upload things to their accounts or to the ATO and other things.

And if they’re buying and selling commodity or they’re, you know, dealing with brokers and things it allows them great speed to be able to do all those things, which, you know, we heard all sorts of horror stories about people trying to upload information into the web and just absolutely struggling to do that.

So that’s our gold standard is really 100-100 is what we’re aiming for.

Program segue: This Turf and Surf podcast is powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: On this episode of Turf’n’Surf, we’re looking at how Queensland’s producers are taking a can do approach to solving 21st century problems to keep their businesses thriving, and how the Queensland Government is helping the State’s agripreneurs to compete globally.

Andrew Seville is an agripreneur, a producer thinking outside the box to deliver innovative solutions to benefit the agriculture industry. Andrew, and his wife Amelia, run a 6000 hectare property between St George and Dirranbandi in south-west Queensland producing mainly wheat and cotton and also running beef cattle.

Andrew knows only too well the problems associated with poor internet service. In fact, in 2015, he identified three problems he wanted to solve.

Welcome Andrew. Tell us about those three problems and how you went about solving them.

Andrew Sevil: The first one was a decent internet connection.

We had basically been reduced to about one megabit per second over the mobile service and really needed that sorted to be able to continue to operate our business. The second problem was we wanted to stretch that data around the property so that we could communicate from our vehicles, from our tractors, and be able to have that sort of ability farm wide, not just at one point at the house.

And the third problem that I wanted to solve, which was initially going to be down the track a bit, was a network of monitoring sites. Whether that be a camera or a sensor or some sort of hardware to allow better monitoring of sites without necessarily having to travel to them.

To fix a lot of those problems the biggest thing we realised was that we needed to get height, we needed line of sight. So we employed an engineer, who was fairly practical, and gave him a list of the equipment we had and our budget I suppose, which was pretty limited.

He designed for us a 52 metre tower that we built in the shed over a period of probably about 12 months just on times when we weren’t busy running the farm to get in and fabricate up the framework for the tower, which was erected in May 2017.

And that’s basically where it all started.

Host: So with that almost MacGyver level of ingenuity you’ve sorted your connectivity issues and what benefits has that delivered?

Andrew Sevil: The first one was immediately a better internet connection.

That elevation really helped us achieve a really good mobile data service to provide that real decent connectivity. And that’s been running now for over three years without any issues whatsoever. So, that gets it to the houses and gives us a great connection as far as data for the running of the business, and if we want to watch a movie we can.

So then we extended that network around to three access points around the property, and we also designed hardware to go in the tractors and vehicles to provide a link through to that tower for decent communication. So if I’ve got employees on the tractor and they have a breakdown they can call me up, they can send me a photo, without any cellular reception whatsoever.

It’s through a wi-fi network on the property. So that provides real peace of mind with regard to OH&S. The third one was the security cameras. Now that we had a high-speed wi-fi on the property itself we could put cameras and stream live video wherever we wanted, whether it be looking at a tank in a trough or down at the irrigation area.

We can run a high-speed network, it doesn’t cost us a cent in data because it’s all inhouse, it’s on the property.

Host: So Andrew if I’m a producer looking to invest in this technology what are the things, the possible pitfalls, that I should be aware of?

Andrew Sevil: Yeah, there are a number of steep learning curves.

It’s not for everyone. And everyone’s situation is different. Whether it be the terrain, whether it be the ability for you to get a decent connection, satellite may be your answer. So there’s a number of different things that you need to be looking at from a consumer that may be specific to your location or terrain.

And with everything with technology, with the uptake and improvements in technology, you can guarantee the minute you invest in hardware a better and faster model will be released within the next couple of weeks. You’ve just got to get the latest technology, invest in it, and you’ll get about 10 years out of it.

Don’t invest in old technology. The cost is obviously also another one. Depending on the requirements you have and how much it can cost you it’s certainly one of the considerations.

And the last one is once you’ve got it up and running, whether you put it up yourself or got someone to do it, is finding the expertise. When things go wrong you’ve just got to have the ability or the expertise at your fingertips to be able to sort it out.

Host: Andrew, you mentioned the cost of investing in ag tech. It doesn’t need to be complex or costly.  What are your tips for keeping costs down and finding affordable solutions?

Andrew Sevil: So for me it was really doing a lot of it myself. Learning to program the radios, purchasing and installing them myself.

It’s really industrial strength hardware at a very cost-effective price. And I think initially because that’s all scalable starting small to begin with.

Set up a couple of sites, make sure you’re comfortable with it.  Once you are, then look at expanding out. It doesn’t have to be all done in a couple of weeks.

You can do it progressively over a period of time once you become more familiar with the hardware.

Host: I imagine finding the right solution can be very much a matter of trial and error. And not everyone will get it right the first time. How do you go about finding the right solution to your business problems?

Andrew Sevil: Yeah, that’s a good question.

A lot of Google searching. Generally, I’ve got a couple of people on speed dial that really have experience in this sort of area. Just doing your research and Googling and jumping on forums.

So it just requires researching down and using the internet and doing your research.

Host: Andrew, what are the next steps? Where to from here?

Andrew Sevil: So since we’ve done all that we have progressed down another network on the property called LoRaLAN.

The wi-fi is great. One of the downsides to it is power consumption. And there’s some areas where the wi-fi doesn’t have a great connection. So we went down this road of LoRaWAN where we put a gateway, which is just like a communication device, on the tower and we can put low data consumption sensors on those tanks and troughs to monitor.

So that’s the way we have gone. There are other alternatives. I guess that where to from here is not so much with the current stuff it’s really just adding things to the wi-fi, but we’re looking at expanding our LoRaWAN network to all sorts of different fences around the property.

Things like tank level fences, trough level fences, channel fences, storage fences, weather station flow meters. All those sort of things, the LoRaWAN is ideal for.

Program segue: You are listening to Turf and Surf, the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: On this episode of Turf’n’Surf, we’re looking at how Queensland’s producers are taking a can do approach to solving 21st century problems to keep their businesses thriving, and how the Queensland Government is helping the state’s agripreneurs to compete globally.

Jason Huggins is the ag-tech sector engagement officer for the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Jason’s role is to support and link Queensland’s ag-tech businesses with the assistance they need to achieve their vision and contribute to the industry’s efficiency and profitability.

Welcome Jason. Tell me about AgTech. Why was it set up? And what are you trying to achieve through AgTech?

Jason Huggins: My role was set up as part of Advance Queensland. Queensland Government’s 755 million investment in innovation.

This program is currently helping drive economic growth and create jobs across our region. My role essentially is to assist agri-businesses to take advantage of the wave of technology that are being deployed across the various industry sectors. I

t’s the link, agripreneurs, start-ups and SME with each other and industry, university, DAF researchers and extension officers and regional innovation hub to foster innovative and collaborative ag-tech solutions to the industry issues that are out there.

Part of my job is also to help navigate the various State Government grants and ag-tech activity. In fact the position itself is quite innovative.

It’s a collaborative effort between DAF and the Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation.

Host: We’ve heard about the fantastic work of Andrew Seville. What are some of the other success stories of AgTech?

Jason Huggins: There’s so much going on, particularly in regional Queensland, frankly it’s hard to keep up.

With around 26 per cent of Australia’s AgTech start-ups based in Queensland, the great fact is a number of these activities are world’s best. There’s the driverless tractors that have been created by Swarm Farm Robotics in Emerald.

InFarm at Goondiwindi who use artificial intelligence to detect specific weeds and pests and data gathered from drones. Then there’s Data Farming in Toowoomba that use mobile friendly mapping, satellite imagery and Cloud based processing to actually put decision making literally in the hands of the producer.

There’s digital platforms such as the Farmer Meets Foodie from Mt Molloy in Far North Queensland. This is virtually a farm gate connecting producers to householders, to chefs, to restaurants and food suppliers.

Then there’s start-up companies like LESS Industries that have relocated from overseas, from Argentina to Bundaberg, that use the internet of things to undertake smart monitoring to assist in profitable and sustainable decision making.

Host: From that snapshot it’s easy to see that the obvious benefits of a maturing ag-tech sector is the creation of new jobs, opening up new markets, and the opportunity to compete globally. It’s very exciting that DAF is doing AgTech. So how can producers get involved?

Jason Huggins: Well there are lots of ways.

Some of these are by searching the web and by getting involved in programs and activities that are Queensland Government initiatives, such as the Advanced Regional Innovation Program, specific funded Queensland Government centres like the Precinct, the AI Hub and the regional manufacturing hubs in Cairns, Townsville and Rockhampton.

In addition to the many regional innovation centres located throughout the state. Also by looking out for specific ag-tech events and programs, like Build It, Use It, Profit Field Day, the Ag Frontiers Program, and, in November, AgTech month and the many associated Queensland based activities that occur in November.

Host: Jason, where can producers go to find out more about AgTech?

Jason Huggins: By checking out DAF’s Ag-Tech presence online which is continually evolving.  And the address is daf.qld.gov.au/agtech.

Program outro: You’ve been listening to Turf and Surf. Turf and Surf is produced by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. For more information or to subscribe, visit our website at daf.qld.gov.au.