Some of the topics discussed during the event included thinking outside the square when it comes to the food we produce, with a focus on alternative and sustainable protein sources such as cricket and grasshopper farming, utilising sensors and other new advances in technology to help make decisions on farm more reliable and efficient.
It was highlighted that consumers must be educated and listened to when it comes to food production. Some of the things I will discuss in this article may seem ridiculous but hear me out, and think big picture!
In a world where technology is commonplace in everyday lives. Consumers have choices they never used to have in the past and they have access to information at their fingertips. It is important that as an industry we build an awareness of agriculture and where food comes from. How we do this in a way that connects with our urban neighbours was discussed throughout the two days and addressing the gap that exists between the country and city was on top of the agenda. New technology such as virtual reality incursions allows the farm to be brought to the city with little effort, and provides users with a real-life experience of the whole supply chain, including farm activities, logistics, processing and delivery of the end food product. This technology is being used in schools with great success, with children being able to experience farm practices, such as sitting on a cotton picker, mustering cattle or harvesting wheat in a real-life situation. Not only is this creating awareness of where food and fibre originates, but it is helping to promote careers and pathways into the agricultural sector.
Challenging the norm was also on the agenda, with a focus on alternative crops and farming in new ways. Insect farming has been ticking away for a few years, with impressive feed conversion, minimal waste and a final product that is high in protein, and surprisingly satisfying (with a seaweed, nutty flavour). Crickets are grown on food waste from the big supermarket chains, food that would typically go to landfill, and they have the ability to convert 10kg of food waste into 9kg crickets, an impressive feed conversion ratio on any level. With diet conscious, environmentally cautious and animal welfare interests at the front of mind, this form of farming for an alternative source of protein is ticking boxes around the world. Insects are being ground into powder and included in a range of everyday food items, such as corn chips, protein powder and granola. With new food items such as these appearing more regularly, these options will change from the classification of ‘special food’ to just 'food' in the near future. Grasshopper chip anyone?
Why is this being discussed at an agricultural technology (ag-tech) conference? With an increase in ag-tech adoption, and possibly the reduction in labour required and therefore population decline in regional communities, it is important to think about the big picture. How can we curb rural population decline in the event of technology adoption. Diversity may be the answer, and thinking about growing algae and insects are a couple of possibilities that have been trialled. Primary producers may be able to retrofit areas on farm with production limitations and issues, and utilise them in different ways to maintain regional employment. Research undertaken by Professor Peter Ralph, at the University of Technology in Sydney, has found that algae has exciting properties which have been trialled to successfully stimulate growth in different parts of plants.
Blackmore Wagyu founder David Blackmore gave a strong and educational presentation on achieving success when producing locally and thinking globally. David’s passion for premium quality beef, the relationships he has built on his farming journey since he started in 1988 and the value of going above and beyond was highlighted. For David, the global success of his Wagyu beef products come down to the following essentials: traceability, food security, guaranteed supply, telling a story (his farming story) and providing training for restaurant staff that use his product. These aspects of his business have ensured his superior reputation in the global market, in which he exports to 15 countries, in order to spread risk. To achieve this reputation David emphasised the importance of differentiating yourself from the market, which he achieves by being fully integrated, owning his own export licence and having one distributor. David recognises the importance of the customer, and is constantly asking for feedback, which allows him to make the necessary changes to constantly improve. The messages David gave can be related to any commodity.
Focusing on the customer was a strong message from the conference. Beechworth Honey’s Jodie Goldsworthy told the audience that the success of their business was due to the fact that the customer was always in front of mind. Beechworth Honey focuses on education and entertainment through both their online presence and shopfront.
Similar messages also came from Boundary Bend Olives' Rob McGavin. Boundary Bend is the overarching company of Cobram Estate olive oil. He spoke about the importance of traceability trust in an industry where cheating is rife. By taking people to the olives, he is providing education in a way that proves seeing is believing.
How can technology be used to solve the issues faced by primary producers, to make their businesses more efficient, more profitable and to save time and money? It is clear that technology innovators must first ask if the technology they are developing is necessary and what the problem is they are trying to solve. During evokeAG, it became clear that although many companies developing technology solutions for the agricultural sector are asking these questions, there is still a disconnect between ag-tech companies and the primary producers. Collaboration is needed by industry, research and entrepreneurs. This brings us back to the topic of the arduous task of creating an 'agri-educated' nation. Many options were discussed including bringing agriculture into the Australian curriculum, which would allow students to gain fundamental knowledge of how farms and agriculture work. By providing real world situations through science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) through agriculture.
When 83 per cent of Australians are disconnected from agriculture and 23 per cent of Gen Ys don’t care how food or fibre is produced, it is clear that wider community involvement is required. It is important that as educated consumers we purchase goods from retailers who give farmers a fair go. This includes having an emphasis on local, traceable and fresh foods.
Why is Australia lagging behind the ag-tech game compared to other countries? Speakers from Israel commented on the progressive actions happening in their country, which included abundant sharing of information between investors and research organisations. Israel brings in stakeholders, farmers and entrepreneurs at all levels of ag-tech development and adoption, having a seamless system. Australia on the other hand commonly does one on one deals and lacks a sharing culture.
With technology and tools constantly being developed, there was discussion on how producers and advisers can make decisions on which tools should be used. Asking questions about what a potential app, sensor, program or tool can deliver to your business can save you time and effort when determining which to use. Try products; if you try a product and it doesn’t fit your business, try another. Share what you find with other growers. Don’t be afraid to move data around to different products, data is yours, you can do what you like with it. Buy products that have people willing to listen and provide support. Ask for case studies, as other people’s experiences count.
evokeAG was a thought-provoking conference that allowed MIG attendees to think outside the box. Attendees were lucky enough to discuss ideas with a range of industry leaders, network with technology developers and entrepreneurs and develop a greater understanding of available technologies within our industry.