PRIME Minister Malcolm Turnbull will stand with Australian farm leaders today when an unprecedented digital innovation agenda, designed to capture potentially lucrative economic opportunities with farmgate benefits, is unveiled.
The National Farmers’ Federation will announce three key elements of its ambitious online transformation strategy, hot on the heels of Mr Turnbull unleashing his government’s $1.1 billion national innovation and science strategy this week.
That announcement underscored plans to sharpen commercialisation opportunities and bolster farm research and extension programs within key agencies like the CSIRO, to enhance the farm sector’s economic contribution.
Of the science and innovation agenda, Mr Turnbull said it was about “unleashing the ideas boom”.
“This is all about Australia becoming an innovation nation,” he said.
“There is a big cultural change afoot here.
“It's a mood of optimism, of entrepreneurship, of imagination and that is what will drive our prosperity in this the 21st century.”
Today, Mr Turnbull will share centre-stage with NFF president Brent Finlay and CEO Simon Talbot at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute south of Sydney, as the rubber hits the road on the peak farm group’s critical restructuring efforts.
Three components of the NFF’s ambitious plans will be revealed for public scrutiny - the NFF Digital Agriculture Service; the NFF online platform for Australian farmers; and a new multi-million dollar incubator for agricultural start-ups and technologies.
The NFF will also reveal the key commercial partners backing its digital plans including global strategy company Accenture, the Commonwealth Bank, Crowe Horwath, Vodafone, Prime Super and Coles.
Mr Talbot said the National Broadband Network (NBN) was also vital to the technological revolution by supporting digital connection and integration of farmers into the online platform, to help boost their commercial returns by capturing data ownership.
The announcement will also reveal the NFF’s deadline to go live with its online platform is May next year, while the agricultural technology innovation hub to be named ‘Sprout’ is due to surface in March 2016.
Mr Talbot said the NFF first sounded out the Prime Minister on its futuristic online strategy six months ago and the then Communications Minister “jumped out of his seat” to back it.
“He (Mr Turnbull) was very excited and said ‘this could be the most profound impact on Australian agriculture and how can we help support you in it’,” he said.
“He was very aware that it was the first of its kind in the world where a national farming organisation has taken ownership of supporting data ownership for farmers and aggregating a solution.
“In many parts of the world what we are doing has failed because individual companies have actually siloed the data and competed against each other and ultimately taken profits away from farmers.
“Our higher purpose has always been better farmgate returns and in the partnerships we’ve developed, 80 per cent of the value goes back to the farmer which is very different to the models that are already out there.”
A 'digital Swiss army knife'
Mr Talbot said he was “pretty excited” about the possibilities underpinning today’s launch alongside Mr Turnbull and showcasing the NFF’s new commercial partners.
He said the NFF executive and board first discussed the digital platform and other concepts about nine months ago and acknowledged that if they didn’t take the lead, someone else would capture the potential opportunities.
“This may sound a little bit controversial but the road to future serfdom for farmers is to not own their data,” he said.
“You may own the land but if you don’t own the data someone else is going to use it against you.
“So we decided as an executive and a board to make sure our mandate over the next 25 years is to ensure that we had a solution for digital agriculture involving farmers owning their data and maximising the commercial benefits of owning that data.”
Mr Talbot said he believed the online platform would work like a “digital Swiss army knife” for farm businesses.
“What Smartphones did for our generation, the digital platform will do for agribusiness,” he said.
“It will change the way we manage, communicate and lift productivity.
“It’ll be like using an excellent work dog and one day you’ll look back and wonder how you ever managed without it.”
Mr Talbot said the online platform was currently under construction and would officially go live in May but NFF wanted to start gathering formal feedback and expressions of interest from farmers and agribusinesses now, on the key concepts.
“It’s really important for us to get feedback and people saying ‘we want digital agriculture and we want these services and services owned by farmers’,” he said.
“Today’s launch is really a bit of a call to arms to say to farmers ‘if you believe in a future for Australian agriculture that’s digitally connected and smart then put your hand up and if we don’t put our hand up now in this current innovation cycle we’ll be swamped by other sectors of the Australian economy’.
“People often view agriculture as a legacy or historical part of the Australian economy but we need them to view it as part of the future of the Australian economy and that’s really important.”
Mr Talbot said the launch would also be backed-up by a serious media and marketing campaign over the next three months, involving field days and advertising in rural and main stream media.
“We’ll be pushing it pretty hard to get people to sign up their interest,” he said.
“From day one a web page will be set up for farmers or agribusiness professionals to sign-up and express their interest in these services and the use of digital technology.”
Mr Talbot said Sprout represented the biggest investment that the NFF had ever made and several “willing partners” were looking at putting tens of millions of dollars into the right projects.
“This is not money that’s just going to be splashed around,” he said.
“It will involve three phased process where farmers can put up problems to be solved and people can put up solutions and those solutions get vetted.
“For every 100 solutions you’ll have 10 that pass through a business case assessment and go into an incubator and two or three of those will go through to be being capitalised and funded and that’s standard innovation stuff.
“The projects that will be capitalised will vary between $2 million and $10 million in terms of the size of funding required.
“And those funding models will either be a crowd funding option, direct investment option or joint venture option.
“The people behind the solution will pick one of those three scenarios and we’ll support them in getting it funded properly.”
Online advocacy platform
Mr Talbot said the NFF’s restructure plans and moves towards a digital online advocacy platform to compete with the likes of Animals Australia and GetUp! all folded into today’s announcements.
He said that aspect of the program will also be launched in May 2016 but the NFF’s new and streamlined representative restructure was “a rolling process” where several members would start “folding” their data bases and members, under the one banner.
Some of those members – like State Farming Organisations – will take 18 months to eventually transform their constitutions via Annual General Meetings to come under the one national peak body brand and structure, he said.
But Mr Talbot said the online platform allowed all NFF’s current and future members to all sit under the one united structure.
“I’ve got seven interested parties currently not members of the NFF who are saying ‘when you build it we’re in and when we do there will be a true voice for primary producers’,” he said.
“None of this works without farmers actually having a central online voice.
“How do you digitally enable farmers if they’re not connected and not listening to you or not giving you feedback?
“We can’t just roll a solution out across 106,000 Australian farm businesses. We’re going to roll it out progressively commodity by commodity over 18 months.
“We have targeted people like cotton to start with and parts of horticulture and the reason for that is they’re already digitally educated adopters of innovation and ready and willing to prove their productivity.”
Name change on the cards
Mr Talbot said the NFF was also debating a name change between Australian Farmers and Farmers Australia which is likely to be formally announced in May when the digital services are officially launched.
“The new name will be up to our members to decide but we think having what I’d call a neutral title like Australian Farmers and Farmers Australia is the right way to launch,” he said.
Mr Talbot said Australian agriculture was entering a new growth phase with the potential to generate $1.2 trillion between now and 2030 - while this year alone it earned a record $57.6 billion.
“We need to reposition agriculture as an industry not of the past but of the future with a flourishing culture of entrepreneurialism and innovation,” he said.
“These three initiatives will help facilitate this shift while bolstering prosperity across the sector.”
Commonwealth Bank Executive General Manager Regional and Agribusiness Banking Geoff Wearne said his company was bringing its “innovation smarts” to the farm sector as the national economy transferred from the resources sector to one “powered by knowledge and innovative thinking as demand for Australia’s food bowl grows”.
“We will support the development of a new online platform to deliver farmers with the most up-to-date food and agribusiness news, weather and market information in addition to providing a peer-to-peer network,” he said.
“Commonwealth Bank’s renowned Innovation Lab will be used to help inform the direction of the proposed online platform, using not just its leading technology but its range of innovative thinkers.
“As the federal government embraces innovation through its National Innovation and Science Agenda, Commonwealth Bank’s support for agribusiness digital platforms follows other recent and significant commitments to new technology, via the Australian quantum computing project and an enhanced cyber security curriculum at UNSW.
“We are excited to be supporting innovation in the agricultural industry at a time when an emerging segment of young ‘tech-savvy’ farmers are looking for innovative ways to integrate technology into their businesses and we are committed to supporting that transition.”
NFF’s new Online Platform aims to bring farmers, agribusiness professionals and consumers together in an engaging online platform designed to create value for farmers, agribusiness and consumers.
It will deliver the most up-to-date food and agribusiness news, weather and market information; promote best management practice; and provide member benefits, blogs, commentary, and the ability to magnify the industry’s voice using campaigns and live policy development.
Mr Talbot said this marks a major step for Australian agriculture by enabling the industry to tell its story to a much wider audience than ever before.
“As the country’s most geographically dispersed industry, agriculture can gain real value by engaging more effectively online,” he said.
“The Online Platform is a major investment by the NFF in ensuring farmers get the most from improved connectivity.”
Vodafone Director of Strategy and Corporate Affairs Dan Lloyd said their investment in the platform further strengthened Vodafone's commitment to regional Australia.
"Through our network investment and our advocacy for greater regional mobile coverage and choice, we are standing up for regional Australia,” he said.
“We are excited to be contributing our global expertise in communications technologies to help support the digital future of Australia's agricultural sector through this partnership.”
Digital Agriculture Service
NFF is collaborating with Accenture - its official strategy and digital partner - to develop and deliver new digital technologies and services to help ensure Australia’s agriculture sector remains globally competitive.
In bringing Accenture’s global capabilities to the sector, the NFF is committed to enabling Australian farmers to make better data-based operational decisions that optimise yield and boost revenue while minimising expenses.
The Digital Agriculture Service (DAS) will be a global first for an industry-owned suite of tools.
Mr Talbot said by creating a new digital service by farmers, for farmers, the NFF, in collaboration with Accenture, can help avoid the scenario playing out overseas where farmers are overwhelmed by complex and disconnected data locked away by individual service providers.
“The NFF will ensure farmers’ data is securely held for their benefit, and the benefit of the wider industry,” he said.
Accenture Australia managing director Anthony Willmott said the service was a turning point for Australian agriculture.
“Today farmers generate volumes of complex data and there is enormous scope to use this data to enhance decision making and improve farm gate returns,” he said.
“By taking advantage of major innovation trends such as Big Data and the Internet of Things, tools like the Digital Agriculture Service have the potential to add as much as $5 billion to farm gate returns in coming years.
“For the first time in a generation, digital technologies can enable farmers to achieve a quantum leap forward in their performance.”
The NFF aims to launch a publicly available service for all farmers in 2016 commencing with specific solutions for the cotton, beef and horticulture sectors, with other commodities to follow soon after.
What is Sprout?
The new innovation hub for agricultural technologies, ‘Sprout’ will be a mechanism to identify, foster and promote the best new ideas in the food and agribusiness arena.
The NFF and Crowe Horwath parent company, Findex, have assembled a highly skilled assessment panel and are developing relationships with capital partners to provide agri-entrepreneurs with financial backing.
Mr Talbot said the agriculture sector had a proud history of innovation, often led by our farmers themselves.
“As the pace of innovation globally continues to increase, we need pathways to identify the best ideas and get them to market sooner in order to remain at the cutting edge,” he said.
Spiro Paule, Chief Executive Officer, Findex, said Sprout would be a powerful tool to help drive agricultural innovation.
“This program will be the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, supporting grassroots innovation in what is arguably the country’s most important sector,” Mr Paule said.
“Findex will leverage its global expertise in business establishment to assist people and businesses who have new ideas to ultimately further agriculture’s success.”
The first round of applications for incubation via Sprout will open in early 2016.