Why Australia needs to make soil sexy

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December 5 was world soil day, so I thought I might get my hands dirty (ha-ha) and write about our most important agricultural resource, our soil.

Soil is usually a boring subject, but I’ve made my goal this year to make it sexy. As part of that I wanted to talk more about the importance of health soil across not just agriculture, but our entire economy.

I probably need to define what the term ‘soil health’ means. A lot of soil scientists I talk to despise the term because it’s so broad and ill defined. Fortunately I’m not a soil scientist and you probably don’t have all day to make your mind up about the political correctness of the term ‘healthy soil’. So to quickly summarise what it means using a summary from Agriculture Victoria:

‘Good soil health is about creating a robust soil that can withstand impacts, such as agriculture, without loss of fertility, structure and biological activity.’

So healthy soil is really about the ability for soil to sustain life (plants and microbes) in the long term, despite shocks to that system. The result of healthy soil is that we continue grow stuff, lots of stuff, generation after generation.

Similar to our health, a healthy soil can bounce back from a few blows. To use the analogy of smoking, one cigarette might not do you much harm, but the effect those cigarettes have over time build up and result in cancer and a lung transplant 30 years down the track.

Similarly the impact some of our agricultural practices have on fertility, for example tilling, may not be noticeable over a single season. But over time sustained tilling can drastically impact the productivity of that land.  Take this study from 2003 that looked at sugar cane production in Queensland. It found a decline in yield of up to 33% over the course of a few decades (identified when they compared crops experiencing rotation breaks compared to the existing practices).

Fortunately zero, or no-till farming is now common place in order to prevent this from occurring. But tillage isn’t the only practice that can seriously degrade soil fertility over the long run. Sustained cropping using synthetic fertiliser without reintroducing organic matter can degrade Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) stocks. Over the course of a few years, it may not be noticeable, but over a generation the loss of SOC can have serious implications to yield and to the farmer’s bottom line. SOC helps the soil retain nutrients and water, so without it we need to replace them more frequently, and there’s a direct cost to the farm through increased fertiliser use in having to do this.

Over the course of a few years, it may not be noticeable, but over a generation the loss of SOC can have serious implications to yield and to the farmer’s bottom line.

Check out the blog post on soil carbon cycles from Soils For Life for a great summary on the different types of organic carbon, and the speed at which they get replaced. The challenge is viewing this change over time, linking it to an economic cost, and being able to forecast it out 10-20 years.

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Unfortunately a reduction in soil health impacts more than just farm yield. Various studies have highlighted that over the past 70 years, the nutrient content of vegetables has declined by up to 40% or more. Some of this has been due to poor soils, whilst some of the decline has resulted from the ‘dilution effect’, which basically means crops are providing higher yields, and an increase in calorific content, without increasing the mineral or vitamin content.

So who in Australia is owning the soil health problem? A friend and mentor makes a really interesting comment, that is that soil is everyone’s care, but no one’s responsibility. To be fair, farmers need to make money, and that comes from maximising yields year after year. Governments also don’t have the data or influence (at least not Australia), to help form policy and police good soil management over the long term either. The challenge is formulating the data set and linking this to the economic benefits of long term soil management.

To get the data, and start the change in attitude towards soil health, we need to get people interested in managing soil in the first place, and that’s why we need to make soil sexy.

The Rise of Techgronomy

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Whilst at an Everything Internet of Things (IoT) Summit in Sydney I heard about how lots of disruptive technology is connecting the world and in particular my own industry, agriculture. One of the stand-out discussions I had was with the founders of a company that makes soil water sensors. Initially built for horticulture, this company has a cracking business model across the entire agricultural industry. They were able to find a big pain point that exists across a huge market, and that was ‘how do I know if my plants are over or under-irrigated’?

But the technology they use isn’t novel, it’s a soil water monitor that connects to the cloud via a 3G network to feed the data back to the farmer. Tech like this has been around for decades but what this company has been able to do is to apply it in such a way that it answers a specific question posed by many.

It got me thinking, whilst water is one key component in horticulture, what about the remaining data a farmer might want to use to make decisions? As of right now there is no single piece of hardware out there that captures all the information a farmer might need (if there is let me know, I want to buy shares). I’m not just talking soil water, I’m talking technology to monitor staff output, cattle location, fences, pumps, tank levels, silo levels, soil health and so on. Whilst a farmer might be able to adopt a few pieces of hardware to capture some of this data, how do they know what to use, where to use it, and whether the cost is worth the payoff? Not to mention how all this technology would interface with their existing farm management software.

Enter 'Techgronomy'

This is a term a friend and mentor dropped on me the other day. A crossover between technology and agronomy, techgronomy is the use of technology in agriculture. A techgronomist then is someone who helps advise farmers on what technology they can adopt to optimise their business. This includes applying sensors and software to solve the specific business problems of that farm.

Why is this important?

There’s a lot of technology out there when it comes to agriculture. Many of which solve specific problems in a specific way. However these problems aren’t necessarily the same for every farmer or in every farm scenario. Even if two farms next door to one another produce exactly the same thing, each farm still has unique business problems due to different infrastructure, soil, and even climate. As a result their data needs are different too. Whilst one farmer may want her water usage data and needs water sensors to do so, another may want to optimise his diesel usage by monitoring the average fuel consumption data of his tractor.

Scaleable markets around many farm problems are just not there and the cost of buying sensors as well as building a software platform to solve the same problem on every farm is not always worth the return either.

For technology companies it’s not always worth building a business to solve these specific problems. Scaleable markets around many farm problems are just not there and the cost of buying sensors as well as building a software platform to solve the same problem on every farm is not always worth the return either.

Bespoke vs Off-the-shelf

This is where the techgronomist enters the picture. They identify the appropriate technology or group of technologies required to create a bespoke solution to the farmer’s problem, as well as identifying the return on investment associated with doing so. This is being made easier by ‘IoT’ hardware companies that produce cheap and easily accessible sensors with an open API that anyone can use to retrieve their data from the cloud. Now when it comes to collecting data the techgronomist chooses the specific sensors they need and applies them to what they need to measure. For example, a farm may be losing cattle to disease so the techgronomist deploys water and temperature sensors to water tanks and feed troughs to collect data. This allows the farmer to reduce feed contamination and save on vet bills.

The result is that the farmer doesn’t need to have 300 different data sources from 30 different tech companies on her farm. Instead she gets a bespoke solution with a single data output... to meet her own unique challenges

The techgronomists next client might need better irrigation control so the techgronomist uses the same water and temperature sensing technology to measure water saturation and shut off a valve once a paddock is properly irrigated.

The result is that the farmer doesn’t need to have 300 different data sources from 30 different tech companies on her farm. Instead she gets a bespoke solution with a single data output (which may be from multiple sensors) to meet her own unique challenges.

Whilst I think startups have a large role to play in the Agtech space we also need to consider the role of techgronomists in designing bespoke agricultural solutions to problems that don’t scale. The challenge is that techgronomy is complicated. It sits at the cross roads of agriculture and technology and requires an understanding of the farm business as well as sensor technology and software. More importantly IoT sensors need to be cheap and customisable enough to be accessible to a farmer (not to mention durable!). Fortunately the demand is there, farmers are continuing to understand the importance of technology when it comes to reducing farm costs, saving time and increasing yields. As a result I predict that we’ll see an increase in the importance of, and reliance on techgronomy and techgronomists into the future. 

FarmLab Accepted into SproutX Pre-accelerator Program

FarmLab was recently accepted along with 100 other early stage startups to join the Melbourne based SproutX pre-accelerator program. We’ll be participating in the 6 week program, which offers early stage agriculture focussed tech startups the ability to learn, grow and expand their business, until December 2016. Whilst FarmLab has been growing for the past couple of months, this poses an opportunity to develop and refine the business model, in line with lean startup methods and guidance from experienced Australian agritech mentors.

I’m personally looking forward to developing the concept further in partnership with SproutX, and can't wait to help farmers, agronomists and soil testing labs in improving access to information and their insights into soil health! I'll keep you all posted with updates on how the product goes, and when we launch - just make sure you sign up to our email list. 

Cheers,

Sam Duncan

Founder - FarmLab