Ag Tech

More industry support needed to breach agtech divide

Emma Alsop, July 18, 2022

QUT researcher Krystle Turner discusses the research findings to an audience at the TSBE 400m: Agrifood Innovation Forum in Toowoomba last week. Photo: TSBE

GROWERS need more on-farm support and a clear framework from regulators and industry if they are to be more open to adopting digital agtech and data-driven farming practices, according to research from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The study titled Critical Factors of Digital AgTech Adoption on Australian Farms took community-wide or ecosystem approach rather than on an individual farm level to assess why more growers don’t implement agtech solutions in their operations.

QUT researcher Krystle Turner told an audience at the Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise 400M: AgriFood Innovation Forum last week that the study showed clear deficiencies with the capability of growers to use the data captured by agtech to make decisions.

She said the study also showed the lack of trust users had in the data and its overall security.

“Given that farmers are already domain experts in their field, the need to digitally upskill in these ways is a big ask and a journey that not all farmers and their team may want to or even need to embark on,” Dr Turner said.

“Farmers overwhelmingly say they need help with technology adoption, but the question is who will pay for it.

“Providers cannot commercially sustain unlimited tech support and agricultural R&D extension has been defunded over recent years, which leaves a large gap in the ecosystem.”

The study was centred around the experiences of a group of broadacre growers in south-east Queensland and their stakeholders, such as agronomists, technology suppliers and grower organisations.

Run over 2020-21, growers used water sensors, satellite imagery and IOT probes to generate data for a dashboard.

Data knowledge divide

“The study revealed a disparity between digital and data related skills, knowledge and support required by farms and others in the supply chain and the capacity of the local ecosystem to meet this need,” Dr Turner said.

“This has raised questions about the level of expertise farmers should be expected to attain in the transition to digital farming, who is best placed to fill this gap and what interventions are necessary to address these barriers to adoption and effective digital agtech use in rural communities.”

She said consequently the adoption of agtech “largely rests with a farmer’s determination to learn new advanced digital data literacy skills to manage and interpret data” which can take up significant time and resources.

“[The] value of a technology is not just about cost benefit; it is also about time, the labour, lost productivity from exiting or interrupting an existing practice to replace it with a digitally enabled practice.

“Participants suggested farmers can feel like guinea pigs who wear the cost of trialing new technologies without a guaranteed cost benefit.”

Alongside issues using and interpreting the devices and data, Dr Turner said the study participants raised questions around the accuracy and security of the information as well as how useful it is to make on-farm decisions.

“Some farmers and agronomists believe the best source of truth is their own experience and tacit understanding of feeling and seeing soil moisture for themselves and consequently knowing the best way forward.

“In some ways, the value of traditional ways of knowing and doing are threatened by digital technologies and are thus undermining adoption practices.”

She said this general issue with trust carried over into how and why on-farm data may be shared.

Currently, the main system for governing this is the National Farmers Federation (NFF) data code, which is voluntary.

“There is a dearth of leadership and regulation when it comes to provision and use of digital technologies and their data in Australia”

“On-farm decision makers are concerned about the privacy and sovereignty of their data, are unsure of who owns the data and who has access to it.

“Deficient data governance exacerbates the uncertainty and lack of clear pathways for addressing the other dimensions of the digital divide.”

Broadband lacking

Dr Turner said in addition to social factors hindering agtech adoption, technological gaps which could be solved by governments and the marketplace also prevented further uptake.

She said a key and well-known issue was the lack of reliable broadband and mobile connectivity in some rural areas.

“Sufficiency of mobile and broadband connections is a factor of adoption whereby, for example the tractors and the sensors used on farm required a mobile connection to enable data to be transferred.

“The lack of ubiquitous mobile, broadband and IOT coverage in rural areas thwarts initial investment in digital agtech and it inhibits cost benefit when investments are made, and just largely disincentivises future adoption.”

Dr Turner said gaps in the usability of technologies currently on the market also played a part in overall adoption.

She said most widely available dashboard application systems used to view data didn’t easily allow growers to get an overall picture of conditions to make on-farm decisions.

“The farmers in our study noted that…the dashboard is useful for displaying data from multiple sources on one platform rather than several apps.

“The data sets themselves are not integrated.”

“For example weather, water sensing and satellite data…are displayed in different tabs on the dashboard and the user needs to switch between them to cognitively gather the information to make a decision.”

Industry needs to overcome challenges

Dr Turner said it is well-known that industry and governments see agtech as a solution to driving agricultural productivity and sustainability.

She said for the agriculture industry to be a $100 billion industry by 2030, agtech adoption was key.

She said Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry along with the NFF, RDCs and other industry leaders have stated that technological advances in farming and resource use are pivotal for this target to be realised.

“Within this agenda, it is said that digital agriculture is needed not only to drive efficiency, productivity and profitability, but also environmental sustainability and climate action.

“This research, we hope, paves the way for much needed fresh understandings of digital agtech adoption in rural and agricultural scholarship and practice, including bridging the gap between on farm skills shortages and a local ecosystems capacity to help develop them.”

 

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