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Digital agriculture promise out of mobile telephone reach

- Sunday, June 05, 2016

Lack of access to mobile telephone coverage is looming as the single biggest barrier that is preventing Australian farmers adopting a wide range of digital technologies that will provide the next big leap in agricultural productivity.

This is the main conclusion arising from the “Digital Disruption in Agriculture” conference held on June 2nd and 3rd by the Australian Farm Institute, which was attended by almost 300 agriculture and agribusiness leaders from all Australia states, as well as from overseas.

Attendees at the conference heard numerous presentations from agribusiness and agricultural technology companies detailing some of the major productivity advances that are possible using digital agricultural technologies and modern telecommunications systems. These ranged from variable rate cropping systems to very sophisticated horticulture and livestock management systems, that take out much of the guesswork, boost productivity, and which significantly reduce business administration costs.

However, it was clear from the presentations and discussions that there are some major impediments in Australia that the agriculture sector will need to overcome in order to capture some of the benefits that are now being captured by US farmers through the use of digital agricultural technologies. These impediments include;
A lack of access to reliable mobile telecommunications services,
The relatively poor coverage of robust weather and climate information in many key agricultural areas,
The lack of detailed soils maps and related information,
The diversity of production systems and production environments in Australia
The lack of detailed crop variety and livestock performance data derived from comparative trials under a range of different climatic and environmental conditions.
A lack of integration between government and private data sets, and
The relatively small-scale of the digital agriculture market in Australia, meaning that a competitive service market is yet to develop.

Conference attendees heard from a number of speakers who have developed innovative ways to overcome some of these impediments. These included farmers who have set up their own farm-wide wi-fi networks (at considerable expense) and others who have found ways to daisy-chain monitoring systems in order to link them into the mobile phone network where only limited access is available on a particular part of a farm.

Other innovative suggestions to overcome other limitations included the observation that if all farmers and researchers holding soil test results agreed to contribute these to a common national database, this could create a valuable resource to supplement existing but limited soil maps. However, this would take widespread industry agreement to achieve. 

This highlights one of the major challenges associated with digital agriculture. Ultimately, there is relatively little benefit that can be obtained from a single-year 's data arising from one farm, but potentially large benefits that can be obtained from industry-wide, multi-year data sets. 

Getting participants in the Australian agriculture sector (including farmers, researchers and governments) to agree to collective efforts to create comprehensive data sets that would benefit everyone could prove to be almost as difficult as obtaining comprehensive mobile telephone coverage in regional Australia!

 
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