The human touch to digital agriculture

One of the hottest topics of discussion at the recent Australian Farm Institute Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture Conference was the interaction between people and technology and the effect on the rural workforce. This is probably not surprising given the potential that digital technology has to disrupt many of the jobs and tasks traditionally associated with farming and agribusiness.

There were many aspects of this interaction that were presented by various speakers and discussed vigorously by the conference delegates. Several scenarios were presented that had almost contradictory implications on the requirements for the future workforce and required skill sets.

For example, it is assumed that automation and robotics in agriculture is going to replace some farm labour. While this may be the case for very specific applications it was also recognised that one of the defining requirements of good farm labour is the necessity to be multi-skilled and be able to perform lots of different tasks around a farm. Automation and robotics works well for defined repetitive tasks but is not suited for the sort of multi-skilled applications that most farm labour is required to do.

In circumstances where automation is appropriate, there will be a need for skilled servicing and support of automated machinery. Discussions at the conference centred on the fact that there is already a shortage of skills needed to service and support new technology in agriculture and that further developments in technology would amplify this shortage.

So, on the one hand, automation is going to be disruptive and will replace some farm labour, but on the other, the vast majority of farm jobs are not suited to automation and there is the opportunity for new career opportunities in agriculture providing specialised service and support for technology. To make predictions on the net effect on farm labour requirements would be heroic until there is more maturity in automation technology, other than to say that there will be change, as there has been in every other sector of the economy.

Another theme that was discussed in the interaction between people and technology was the extent that big data analytics would have in replacing human decision-making based on gut feel and experience. There is no question that much of the promise of the new age of digital agriculture is associated with the data that is collected from technology in addition to the application of the technology itself. Big data analytics is promising to deliver value to farmers through better understanding of production constraints and the ability to tailor production to high value markets based on objective information about quality and markets.

Just as with the potential for automation to replace farm labour, the potential for automated decision-making to replace the knowledge and wisdom of farmers is most likely overstated. Farmers have always used all the tools and information at their disposal as part of the decision-making process. Information derived from big data analytics will be another part of the process of acquiring knowledge that contributes to decision-making.

Big data analytics will also provide new career opportunities in agriculture as data scientists and software design specialists become just as critical to extending agricultural science knowledge as agronomists and traditional extension agents. Again, it is too early to say what the net effect of this technology will be on the decision-making capability required of farm managers and owners other than to say that there will be change in the way that things are done and that with any change comes both disruption and opportunity.

Digital value chains enabled by data capture and transfer will provide the ability to connect consumers with farmers more readily and easily. It is hard to see this aspect of technology use being anything other than positive for the promotion of the rural workforce. Consumers that want closer connection with food want to understand the story of how their food has been produced. Food produced in an entirely automated labour free manner is not going to have as good a provenance story as food produced in a way that sustains rural communities and has a human story attached.

It is fair to say that most people attending the Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture Conference will have formed the opinion that digital technologies will have far reaching effects on farm communities. The exact impact, in terms of labour requirements and skill sets needed probably is yet to be determined. The one thing that can be said with confidence is that there will be far more interaction between technology and people in agriculture than there has been in the past.

Image:  CAFNR