Pool it: farm information cooperative by Alec Nicol

NADC diagram

WHEN PHILLIP Hatty set off on his Nuffield Scholarship to study the opportunities information technology could offer farm managers, he found he was ahead of the game.

His experience in the family farm business at Tocumwal, NSW, convinced him that the drive for more quality assur-ance and environmental management systems will increase demands for farm record-keeping. That would be okay, he argued, if quality assurance came with a price premium.

While that is not in place yet, Mr Hatty believes he's helped pioneer a system of generating income from better recordkeeping while making certain that farmers stay in control.

His idea is an information cooperative owned by farmers to pool the members' production records. He's found Australian organisations interested but cautious, but says there's already demand for the concept overseas.

"The new Pesticides Act is just the beginning," he says. "I found mandatory record-keeping part of the business of farming when I visited California and I think that we'll see very much the same situation here in Australia within the next five or six years or even less.

"Contractors do much of the business of applying pesticides. They have the records of what they used on which paddock, and farmers will rely on them to provide that information to meet their quality assurance requirements. (The applicator holds the records of all of his clients.)

"That's valuable information not readily available to the farmers concerned. Add to that the information gathered by fertiliser spreaders, harvest contractors and the like and you have an enormously valuable pool of information that could be making money for the people who own it — the farmers."

Use the wonders of modern technology

Mr Hatty suggests that modern technology makes it easy to transfer the data from each of these operators to a single data bank and to ensure the security of that information. He's helped establish the National Agricultural Data Co-operative (www.nadc.net.au), a warehouse of farm management information to be collected, stored, processed and exchanged under agreed business rules.

The members of the cooperative, those who own the information, will decide who will have access to that information and they'll put a price on that access.

Extend TOPCROP and other programs

"If you like, it would take the TOPCROP concept a stage further," he says. "The limiting factor is always the need to get farmers to fill out anything. But, if the information is collected by someone else, and collated for them, opportunities exist for further extension services. Consultants, with the farmer's permission, could benchmark their client's business, comparing their management techniques and profitability against every other farmer in the area or across the region."

How? "Simple," says Mr Hatty. "The individual farmer's information is protected by a PIN, but he or she can authorise their records to be accessed by a third party using the analysis services of Crop Check, TOPCROP or the Paddock Action Management (PAM) software (see diagram)."

You might ask whether fertiliser applicators, for example, would be prepared to surrender their highly valuable customer databases to a central organisation.

"I've already spoken with the association representing fertiliser spreaders and, when they realised that the system didn't threaten them, they could see the benefits of joining the cooperative. They can compare the performance of their operators against the rest of the industry knowing that their data are held securely.

The challenge is to involve operators doing their own work and already technology from the US is being used to help owner-operators to get involved.

"The greater the volume of information, the greater the value of that information. Modern farming regulations will lead to the massing of volumes of information. It belongs to farmers, and farmers should have the opportunity of profiting from that pool."

Mr Hatty's idea of a National Agricultural Data Co-operative was one of four finalists in a Victorian farm innovations award. The other founding directors are Donald Carter (national president, Australian Fertiliser Service Association), Warren Blyth (Field Air Group), Mike Stephens and Tony Gill.

"We can now see it working and, since my Nuffield Scholarship field trip I've already had a number of overseas institutions asking for a proposal."

Program 6 Contact: Mr Phillip Hatty 03 5874 3363 email phillip.hatty@nadc.net.au