There’s a romantic stereotype of farmers living the simple life in the country, perpetuated by those living in the city whose days are consumed by numbers, analysis and performance.
It’s a nice idea to believe the decision-making process on the farm involves a farmer crouching down to smell a handful of soil, before gazing wistfully at the horizon to predict the weather.
While farmers tend to possess a more innate understanding of the natural environment, their results rely as much on analysis, research and modelling as their counterparts working in the financial markets.
Similarly, while fintech is revolutionising the finance industry, there’s a tech revolution going on in the agricultural industry, which promises to have a much-needed impact on the world’s ability to feed a growing population.
Rapid advances in digital technology such as cloud computing, analytics and mobile are providing farmers with the decision-making tools they need to drive unprecedented levels of productivity and efficiency.
One business at the cutting edge of this revolution in Australian agriculture is HTM Complete, whose total farm management system combines the latest in digital technology, with drones and aerial mapping to provide farmers with a constant virtual view of their entire farming operation.
From worm’s eye to bird’s eye
Where once upon a time, farmers needed to spend hours travelling around the farm to understand what was happening with their crops, today’s farmers are now able to keep an eye on things with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger.
Although it’s been in practice for more than 30 years, precision agriculture has gone into hyperdrive recently as faster and more affordable mobile technology has come online.
Precision agriculture generally refers to “site-specific” cropping, which involves varying inputs such as water and chemicals in isolated areas of a crop, as opposed to the entire field which in the past was the cheaper and more efficient option.
Irrigation in particular has been the focus of precision agriculture from the early days, and that’s where HTM Complete’s founder and director, Fabian Gallo, first began putting together the pieces for his total farm management solution.
“I started the company 11 years ago and in the beginning our main focus was monitoring irrigation and agronomy, but over time we realised we could add plenty of other input devices to assist with daily operations,” Gallo says.
With more than 16 years spent working with some of the elite producers in Australia’s tropical northern food bowl, Gallo found himself facilitating an increasingly complex range of farm management solutions for growers.
“This gave me the opportunity to bring together a wide range of engineers and specialists with unique skillsets, and we realised we could offer all of these solutions as a complete package to farmers.”
With a growing demand for aerial imaging data, HTM Complete recruited drone specialist Richard Hopkinson to oversee the use of eBee drones in providing farmers with the latest precision imagery, including infrared and 3D mapping.
“We realised in terms of providing a complete view of the farm, we needed to provide more than just satellite imagery, as in some parts of Australia, that data just isn’t as reliable as it needs to be for making good decisions,” Hopkinson says.
“While drone technology is widely available and farmers can see the potential, understanding the complex software requires specialised insight. At HTM Complete, we have developed software to provide farmers with precise and easy to use programs.”
Virtual farm manager
Not content with providing farmers with such a comprehensive picture of their crops, HTM Complete is also able to manage nearly every aspect of a farm’s operation, including staff, through a seamless digital interface.
Gallo says, “While there are already programs that deal with specific functions of farming, the HTM Complete system is designed to be much more intuitive and user-friendly. It allows users to transition between different functions at the swipe of a finger or the touch of a button.
“Even on a farm, there’s multiple devices that everyone uses, whether it’s a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone, therefore apps are the best way for everyone to get the access they need to each function of the system.”
With every part of the farm linked together, farm managers are able to keep track of workers’ locations in real-time while monitoring and updating job lists for them to complete.
For example, an agronomist or scout could be given a specific GPS location within a crop that’s been identified for inspection via drone imaging, where they’ll be able to go to the precise location to take detailed photos and then upload the photos to the system through their mobile phone.
It’s this potential to utilise mobile technology that could be crucial in providing a solution for global food production in poorer parts of the world.
With 700 million mobile phones now operating in Africa, more than Europe and the US combined, offering these farmers the ability to access and upload data via their mobile device could be the next step in empowering greater farm productivity, in the regions that need it the most.
Where these farmers were once disconnected and disenfranchised, new mobile agriculture apps are enabling them to get accurate weather forecasts, access microfinance and keep track of their herd’s gestation periods.
Unfortunately, while mobile phones are widely available, infrastructure is still a major hurdle to overcome, and it’s the same problem in Australia, according to Gallo.
“The biggest limitation in Australia, is that without the appropriate networks and infrastructure for accessing data, it’s difficult for farmers to derive value from it,” Gallo says.
“While we can’t control infrastructure providers, we can work to improve the internal networks of a farm operation, where they’re less reliant on that external infrastructure for transmitting data.
“That means as long as farmers can get data to one point on the property, they’ll have their own reliable internal network for accessing data.”
HTM Complete’s tools are also designed to provide full control of every input, including electricity, so farmers are able to make appropriate changes, to ensure they’re operating at optimum energy efficiency where appropriate.
It’s this focus on improving the use of water, soil and energy that has allowed HTM Complete and their customers to take advantage of an innovative finance program from NAB.
Designed to stimulate the adoption of clean energy and energy efficient assets in Australian farming, Australian farmers have already received $99 million from NAB and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for energy-efficient equipment and clean energy projects in a $115 million total program.
HTM Complete is offering a glimpse into a brave new world of agriculture that could one day be the key to solving many of the problems that are set to plague global food production.
“Ultimately, better interpretation of data reduces inputs and maximises yields so it enables farmers to conserve water and minimise the use of chemicals,” Gallo says.
“While that’s obviously good for helping farmers to run their farms more efficiently, this technology could definitely play a major role in helping to solve some of those global issues in the long-term.
“Australia is a world leader in agricultural best practice, therefore we’re uniquely positioned to be able to provide our expertise as a country to solving some of those global issues."