Why we are so excited about agrifood: Part 1 — the future of farms

At Cicada GrowLab we spend a lot of time thinking about the future of food, agriculture and everything in between.

Last year we shared some of our thinking on how our future agrifood system will unfold. We described ‘three waves’ of startups: those making the current system work better, new ways of producing and processing food, and new biotechnologies to do things other technologies can’t.

Over three posts we will be delving deeper into these three waves of agrifood tech innovations.

This post, the first of the series, will be focusing on companies that are making the current systems work better than ever before.

A couple of decades from now, we predict Australian agriculture will be deeply digitised and highly automated. From sewing, to drafting, to picking, on-farm robotics will be ubiquitous. Connectivity issues will be a distant memory thanks to new generations of long range, low power wireless capabilities and all of the data collected on-farm will be easily accessible and able to be interrogated to learn from.

First things first, going digital

But how are we going to get there? It’s common knowledge that agriculture is notoriously analogue. In fact, agriculture is often pointed to as the ‘problem child’ of the digital revolution, frequently ranked lowest, or close, for digital adoption.

What this means on the ground is there are many farms, large and small, that are running their operations using a paper notebook, making it impossible to take advantage of the digital tools used in most other industries.

Now the word is out, and agtech has been booming in Australia for the last few years meaning new digital tools for agriculture are becoming available all the time.

From Sydney’s Agriwebb, focusing on livestock producers, to WA’s AgWorld for growers and agronomists, farmers now have access to excellent tools to record and analyse what is happening on their farms.

And this trend is continuing all the way down the supply chain: an example being Sydney’s Agridigital which is digitising contracting and supply chain management for the grain industry around the world.

All this being said, there is still a lot of work needed to create a totally digitised agriculture system. For example, paper dockets are still required by truck drivers to transport live animals in NSW!

Increasingly precise analytics

So now we have data. Great. What do we do with it?

Once we have consistent data collection agronomists and farmers are able to use this to make proactive decisions based on what is likely to happen in the future rather than guessing based on what has been observed in the past.

For broadacre applications there are a plethora or remote sensing tools, including GrowLab portfolio company Flurosat, which applied AI to remote sensing to support on farm decision-making.

Others, like Maia Grazing are bringing decision support tools to the pasture. In a similar vein, companies like The Yield use IoT devices to help with on-farm decisions.

For the livestock industry, a number of companies are introducing technologies to monitor and manage animals more precisely: these can take the form of smart tags (like Herdogg’s or Ceres Tag) or even implants under the skin, as is the case for Livestock Labs.

All of these companies are bringing together better data collection approaches and cutting edge analytics to move from recording what has been done on farm to recommending what should be done next.

These predictions are typically fed back to the farmer using a mobile app or text messages, meaning they spend less time monitoring and more time acting on the insights gleaned from the data their newly digitised tools have collected.

Automation everywhere

Now that we have the technology to tell us what needs to be done (whether it is spraying, weeding, harvesting or otherwise), then why not outsource the ‘doing’ part of it as well?

Across the world, agricultural robotics have long been promised as a panacea for high labour costs as well as for giving producers the ability to precisely manage each and every plant or animal individually.

We expect that by 2030, robots will be a common sight on Australian farms, dotting the earth and skies day and night, spraying, weeding, picking, monitoring animals and more.

Globally there are many, many players in the agricultural robotics space. Probably the best known example is California’s Blue River Technologies, with it’s $305 million acquisition by John Deere in late 2017.

Locally, we have world-class research and a small, yet burgeoning startup ecosystem around agricultural robotics. Australia has a long heritage of agricultural robotics research, with the University of Sydney Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) and Queensland University of Technology’s Agricultural Robotics Program.

In terms of Aussie startups in this space, Queensland’s Swarm Farm see a future in several small and relatively cheap robots working smarter, faster and together on a range of tasks. They are already demonstrating automated spraying. Further South, Melbourne’s Thingc are working on even smaller robots and currently testing autonomous weeding.

So what comes after we have digitised and automated farms? You’ll have to wait until Part 2 to find out!