The silver lining in data-filled clouds
GroundCover™ Issue: 122 | Author: Rebecca Jennings
Cloud-based technologies that capture farm analytics can unlock farm-management efficiencies
South Australian grower Linda Eldredge never thought she would be hiking the Great Wall of China and talking to her guide about opportunities for Australian growers to meet global food demands.
She describes it as one of the many ‘ah-ha’ moments during her Nuffield Scholarship, supported by GrainGrowers, which she used to research low-cost, cloud-based technologies to assist with innovation and efficiencies in agriculture.
Linda and her husband Rhys run a mixed-farming enterprise at Clare and Appila in Mid North SA, incorporating about 1400 hectares of cropping, Merinos and crossbred lambs. Their children Bryce (22) and Jessica (19) work and study, in Sydney and Adelaide respectively, but, as the seventh generation to farm at Clare, still play a role in the business through its farm advisory board.
When Linda is not taking her turn in the tractor at seeding and harvest, she travels across Australia as a rural business consultant with a passion for production and financial analytics.
“I work with my clients to drill down into their terms of trade, to identify how they can be more efficient and to identify what opportunities exist,” she says. “We aim to increase profitability at all times when collecting data. For example, we have used analytics to demonstrate business opportunities and risk-mitigation strategies that, when presented to bankers, have lowered clients’ margins and interest rates.”
The emergence of smartphones and tablets was Linda’s catalyst to dig deeper into the analytics of farming and how data can be used and collected to drive innovation and efficiencies.
“During the 2011 harvest season, I would spend the day in the paddock and then check grain prices at night, only to find we had missed the chance to sell at a high,” she says. “I thought: there has got to be a better way to do this. So, I bought an iPad and started checking grain prices on the go.”
This one technology allowed Linda to strategically sell grain, capturing an additional $20 per tonne for wheat that season.
“This was the focus of my Nuffield research – to understand the value of new analytical tools and measure their value, effectiveness and potential impact on profitability.”
Linda travelled to the US, Canada, Qatar, India and China as well as Europe in her quest to gain an insight into global agribusiness, and how low-cost, cloud-based innovations could be harnessed to meet industry demands.
She even gained access to leading technology companies Google and Facebook while travelling through the US with the GRDC’s manager digital products and services, Tom McCue.
“I believe a participatory approach in collaboration with social technology giants is critical to create a global solution for new, intuitive, voice-response cloud technologies,” Linda says. “Technologies that use the same hands-free, ‘push and pull’ capability as Google Glass could enable growers to intuitively process data from soil moisture probes, or in-cab technology to assess risk and opportunity on the go.”
While Linda believes such cloud-based technologies are the way of the future, she realises the challenges rural users face.
“Decision-making using cloud-based programs is already a reality; however, there are limitations with regional wireless and data connectivity.
“The ownership and use of big data is another emerging issue, so it is critical to carefully examine the terms and conditions of cloud-based products to ensure data is secure and not being on-sold.”
Linda says another barrier to technology uptake is the disconnect between analytical tools from different companies, meaning users have to duplicate data.
A key message from Linda’s research is that agribusinesses need to be discerning in their choice of cloud-based, real-time subscription tools in order to capture measurable production analytics.
“Data collection can be overwhelming, so start by identifying the gaps and risks in your business and then look for a few good tools to address these areas. If data doesn’t give you an edge, stop collecting it,” she says.
“It is also about a balance of tools. The ‘top end of town’ technologies will deliver significant production gains, but simple tools such as a weather app or even Twitter can provide valuable, real-time information to guide decision-making.”
During her research, Linda realised there is a lack of investment into cloud-based applications specifically for agriculture.
She says one solution is to adopt participatory innovations from other industries, such as drones, infrared cameras and 3D printers, to drive management and production efficiencies in agriculture.
“Imagine being able to 3D-print a machinery part in your own shed instead of waiting for weeks for it to arrive from another country, or having your own private YouTube channel with all your physical operational procedures accessible to staff in a video format for training and ongoing reference. These low-cost technologies could drive increased efficiencies and profitability – now that makes for an exciting agribusiness future.”
More information:Linda Eldredge,
Linda’s Nuffield Australia report