Farm technology Q&A with Jesse Reader

Jesse Reader farm technology

Technology is changing fast, and the orchard technology as fast as any. Growers looking to keep up to date need to keep an eye on what’s up and coming in the tech sphere and how  best to prepare themselves for challenges and opportunities.

APAL caught up with Jesse Reader, the Agriculture Sector Specialist at Robert Bosch Australia, for some advice on how to keep technology in your sights. He will be speaking at the APAL Industry Forum in June about developing Agri-Tech solutions, the rapid evolution of Agri-Technology, and how to position yourself to take advantage of innovation.

Ahead of June, APAL caught up with Jesse for a Q&A.

What makes the future of Ag so unpredictable?

Everything! Weather, disruptive technologies, new business models, ageing populations, rising wage costs, and global geopolitical instability.

What can we do to keep a handle on technological change?

Engage in the discussion, subscribe to updates/newsletters/forums, try something different each year, look outside your industry, and travel!

How does a grower differentiate between innovation that will change the game and costly prototypes without a future? Are there any tech metrics growers can use?

The short answer is – you can rarely have one without the other!

Firstly, looking at prototypes – this is tricky. As technology developers, the innovation framework encourages you to go through many iterations of the product design in the market and match subsequent releases with end user feedback and experience.

Alternatively you can hold the product release for longer, conduct field trials for extended periods  with pilot customers and release a more robust, fit for purpose piece of technology that is more ‘market ready’.

The two approaches have merit but undoubtedly clash, with one potentially causing grower fatigue and the other resulting in missed market opportunities or first mover advantages.

With respect to identifying innovation that will change the game, we are now talking more about truly disruptive technologies. This is innovation that creates new business models, addresses clear market failure, often made up of several pain points or unmet needs – such as robotic harvest.

However, rest assured, robotic harvest will go through many prototypes in order to achieve the end goal – the question is, who ultimately pays for this R&D?

With respect to tech metrics for growers to assess technology based on its likelihood of success, suitability, cost: benefit etc. I would consider the following to varying degrees;

  1. Is the technology fixing a real problem and is the value proposition clear to me?
  2. Does the business have a strong team that can service, support, and assist with integrating the technology into my business?
  3. Does the technology scale? i.e. – If I want to put more in or purchase additional units, is it cost effective?

Where are the biggest innovations taking place? Should apple and pear growers be focusing on orchards, packhouses, or something else?

Some of the biggest innovations taking place in agriculture are harnessing Internet of Things (IoT) technology & connected devices, visions systems and data analytics/machine learning. If I was a grower, however, I would still be focused on making my orchard as productive and accessible as possible, ensuring it is ready to adopt emerging technologies. But I also firmly believe the packhouse presents some golden opportunities for process automation and work flow optimization and given the cost associated with post-harvest activities it continues to be ripe for technology uptake.

Outside of these areas, I think the industry needs to really ramp up data collection and turn it into knowledge. Technology will enable this and the potential for new insight and real time ‘situational awareness’ is enormous.

What are some of the barriers of entry for early adopters, and inversely what are the consequences of ignoring innovation? Cost is always an issue for growers; what are some things growers can do without committing to a high initial investment?

Barriers of entry for early adopters on AgTech include anything from access to technology (many overseas start-ups) capital to invest into technology, knowledge on how to integrate into the business, and farming systems not suitable for progressive technologies.

Inversely, ignoring innovation can be costly. As mentioned, technology often goes through several stages or iterations and requires ‘step change’ within an organization to adopt. Being part of the journey is a more passive approach, as investment can be spread over several years and associated management and cultural changes can be handled with care rather than reactively in one foul swoop over 6 months for example.

What is the role of government investment for tech innovation? What about overseas investment, like Yamaha investing into New Zealand’s Robotics Plus?

Government can be an enormous enabler in this space, providing ‘patient’ capital for startups and industry – where other funding vehicles such as venture capital money, often comes with many ‘fish hooks’ and very tight and often unrealistic expectations on ROI.

Overseas investment is a fantastic sign and it demonstrates that asia-pacific is well placed to drive an AgTech boom. Robotics Plus are an impressive outfit and the recent Yamaha investment is testament to that.

What’s the most exciting tech project you’ve seen in the last year?

Tough question! It’s pretty hard to go past the gains Abundant Robotics have made with robotic apple harvest. To look where they were 4 years ago compared to now is a credit to Dan Steere and the team.

 

Jesse Reader will be a speaker at the 2019 APAL Industry Forum. Read more about the speakers here.

 

About the Author:

APAL is an industry representative body and not-for-profit membership organisation that supports Australia’s commercial apple and pear growers.