A WAVE of technology is washing over the farming sector, but there’s a problem: an acute shortage of techies.
That’s particularly problematic in the area of precision farming, where a technology arms race between machinery manufacturers and independent companies has produced fat catalogues of equipment, but no common language to integrate it.
Farmers who choose not to remain within a brand’s ecosystem are largely on their own when it comes to making different systems talk to each other, because it’s becoming evident that Australia has inadequate consultants who understand the spectrum of precision ag technology.
“There are not a lot of independent support people outside the big companies who can help people pull it all together on the ground,” said Tim Neale of consultancy Precision Agriculture.
Alice Butler, project officer with the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA) at Esperance, said that farmers were frustrated that they are sold lots of high-tech hardware, and then have difficulty integrating that equipment in multi-platform enterprises.
Alice Butler, project officer with the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA) at Esperance.
”We need people with those specialised skills,” Ms Butler said.
“But where do we go to learn them? You can get a diesel mechanic apprenticeship, you can go to uni and learn about ag, but where do you learn about machinery and hardware so that you can support farmers to capture information and use it?”
That skills gap is an opportunity for any educational facility able to develop a training course that embraces the multiple disciplines of precision ag: software, electronics, mechanical and agronomic knowledge.
SEPWA is looking at how to tackle the issue, but Ms Butler said the first hurdle is to work out which is more appropriate: a short course that provides participants with the general knowledge to start their own education, or a university level course that could be out of date by the time students graduate.
In the United States and Canada, Mr Neale said, the dealers have given up supporting precision ag hardware beyond the point of sale. Instead, they direct farmers to independent tech support firms.
Those companies have greater ability to integrate hardware and software across platforms than Australia’s current dealer-based support model. Mr Neale thinks the North American model is about to flourish downunder.
“I think it’s getting to the point where there is so little margin left in the sales for the dealers, and they have trouble keeping good staff, that we’re starting see all these pop-up private hardware support people.”
“It’s only just starting, but I think that will change significantly in the next five years.”
Right now, though, Precision Agriculture is only able to draw on two independent hardware support firms in Australia. Mr Neale is understandably keen for that to change, and quickly.