Could farming become just another industrialised business?

Published 20151102

In many sectors of modern economies, there has been a transition from businesses that were reliant on the individual craft skills of the business owner/operator, to the industraliased model perfected by Henry Ford where replication, mechanization and specialisation have displaced the need for highly skilled workers, and enabled the business model to be endlessly replicated or franchised. Is it possible that in the future farming will take this same path, and family farming will become a quaint relic of a bygone era?

Of all the sectors of a modern economy, farming is perhaps the only one that has not as yet become industrialised. The sector is still dominated by family owned and operated farm businesses which depend heavily on the skill of the owner for its continuing success. There have been attempts to industrialise the sector via the adoption of corporatised models with centralised control systems, but these have had limited success and most would concede that the best skilled and motivated family owner/managers have generally been able to outperform corporate farms. 

One of the key reasons for this is the highly variable nature of the production environment in which broadacre farms are operated, and the heavy reliance that is placed on the observations, skills and experience of the owner/operator in managing all the various factors that can impact on the eventual performance of the farm business. 

There are signs that this is changing, however, with the emergence of what is referred to as ‘digital agriculture’. This terms refers to the development of low-cost digital monitoring systems that are producing a rapidly expanding stream of data about a wide variety of different aspects of the factors that impact on farm production. These developments are discussed in detail in the feature article of the next AFI newsletter, and will also be the subject of a session at the AFI Australian Agriculture Roundtable Conference, to be held later this week. 

The notion of industrialised agriculture, where farm businesses are remotely managed, and operate with a low-skilled workforce overseeing largely autonomous machinery and production systems perhaps sounds far fetched, but may not be as futuristic as it sounds. Technology that is now commonplace in the defence and mining sectors enables operators to remotely manage equipment located thousands of miles away. Autonomous tractors are already being trialed, and present much less operational challenges than autonomous cars, which have already been developed and are operating in trial sites around the world. Remote sensing of land and vegetation via satellite or drones is reasonably routine and becoming cost effective, and individual animal identification systems and auto-drafting technologies are already being used on farms, as is robotic milking in the dairy industry.

In fact it is arguable that industrial agriculture is already a reality in the glasshouse vegetable and poultry meat sectors. In both these cases, it is possible to purchase an ‘off the shelf’ system that includes infrastructure and operating systems, and to set that up and to operate it with largely unskilled or casual labour. The systems that will enable similar developments to occur in broadacre agriculture are already being trialed at several locations in Australia, and while the biggest challenge lies in integrating all the various sources of digital information to achieve actionable decisions, the never-ending escalation of computer power and the rise of data analytics is making this much more feasible than was the case even a few years ago.

What these developments will mean for the future of Australian agriculture is still uncertain, but it is apparent that digital information and decision systems are gradually displacing management skill as the key factor determining business success, and this trend is likely to continue into the future. Whether Australia has in place the infrastructure and technologies to enable these developments to occur, and whether the community is ready for an industrialised model of agriculture are key questions that are still to be answered.

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