While internet connectivity may be viewed as a barrier to farmers adopting more agritech solutions, Phil Edmonds discovers there are many reasons for New Zealand’s low adoption rate, including technology not being developed with their needs in mind.

A fresh look is under way into understanding why agritech adoption in New Zealand has not escalated to the same extent that our primary sector exports have. A cursory glance at the unflattering data on uptake suggests farmers are content using tried and tested methods despite the increasing availability of ‘go faster’ solutions. However, ‘tried and tested’ will inevitably start to hold the industry back. The initial thinking on where to get the ball rolling faster is for agritech developers to focus on time-saving rather than insight solutions, and stop assuming farmers are inherent technophobes.

An analysis of the impact of agritech on the New Zealand economy published last year suggested that New Zealand is underperforming relative to its global peers. While food and fibre exports have grown substantially, the same can’t be said for agritech, which has netted a consistent (rather than accelerating) $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion over the past five years.

The concern over missing out on an opportunity that other countries are capitalising on motivated the government to revitalise its approach.

It established Agritech New Zealand last year and launched an industry transformation plan with an aim to grow the sector by focusing on high value export opportunities to further diversify the New Zealand economy.

It all makes sense. With such a stake in agricultural production, why wouldn’t we want to be better placed to capitalise on a readymade environment where new innovations can emerge and thrive.

But like everything, we need to walk before we can run. And until now that has been the pesky problem – the level of local adoption of agritech has been pretty low.

The analysis in the Aotearoa Agritech Unleashed document estimates that if a range of agritech solutions were fully applied across New Zealand, our primary sector output could be about 21% or $9.8 billion higher than it is. It cited improvements that agritech could make – optimising inputs through variable rate technologies and practices, more timely decision making through monitoring systems, more automation, accelerating genetic gains with objective data, and so on – all of which will be familiar to farmers.

So why is it that farmers have apparently been slow to adopt new solutions and unwilling to focus on the prize?

Of the four key recommendations made in the report, two are dedicated to finding out the reasons and working on how best to stimulate uptake.

‘The initial thinking on where to get the ball rolling faster is for agritech developers to focus on time-saving rather than insight solutions, and stop assuming farmers are inherent technophobes.’

AgriTech NZ chief executive Brendan O’Connell admits we don’t have a great understanding of how widely agritech is being used in New Zealand, and in order to move forward, we need to. It will require some work because it’s a bigger question than simply how much agritech is sold – there’s plenty that has been sold. But some of it is used only seldomly, or it’s sitting at the back of the shed having been neglected.

First off, it’s not just New Zealand farmers who appear sceptical. Digital Pathway to Power, a Rabobank report published last year on unlocking technology in agriculture, referenced a survey of technology adoption in Australia and found that only a small number of farmers had turned data into profit. More specifically, it noted that in the two years to 2019 there had been no improvement in the total proportion of farmers collecting data with sensors. Clearly return on investment was not paying off.

In New Zealand, AgriTech NZ has identified broader barriers than just profitability. It says adoption is hampered by the unavailability of useful data and analytical support tools, but also infrastructural deficits like connectivity. There are also trust barriers to overcome.

In terms of the business case for investing in agritech, the influences on a farmer’s decision to proceed are not only about bottom lines – concerns also remain around the relative advantage of adopting new practices, how easily the practice can be learned, and the benefits of new practices compared with existing practices.

Taken as a whole, you can see why it is easy to be fatalistic about the prospects of lifting agritech use onfarm. But simply listing barriers does a disservice to those who are fighting the fight – which the majority of farmers are in at least some way.

O’Connell says he is actually buoyed by the attitude of a large number of farmers contemplating new solutions. “While farmers might be intensely pragmatic and fiercely independent, they’re not scared of technology. There will always be technophobes, but farmers do seem to be willing to go through a lot of pain if they think they can get value out of it.”

Scott Townshend, chief executive of Trev, a farm reporting platform that captures farm operational data, is seeing plenty of interest in a solution he has partnered with Figured to enable wide access to onfarm data. He also says Covid-19 has made that interest deepen. “During the Covid-19 lockdown we were lucky to be associated with essential businesses and during that time we started to recognise we were providing a solution for those with onfarm interests who could not travel – owners of sharemilked farms, farm consultants and so on.

“At the same time, we had operations managers who had a little more breathing room to consider new practices. Prior to Covid-19 we hadn’t detected any real lack of interest in adopting technology but last year provided a new desire or incentive to look at agritech solutions. Even just the advent of using Zoom sharpened people’s focus with technology.”

These reflections dampen the doubts about interest in agritech, but some roadblocks remain that farmers believe will stymie full uptake. At the Primary Industries Summit in November, Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard spoke on digitisation of the primary sector, noting that connectivity remains a clear challenge, with the potential to digitise information not achievable if you can’t connect. Others noted that while connectivity is a problem, greater adoption of agritech is not solely riding on better internet.

Scott Townshend says it simply depends on what the product is. “If it is IOT (internet of things) technology, then yes, blackspots across the landscape are a barrier. But other farm reporting can be done when coverage permits and not necessarily when you’re out in the paddock. Ultimately we have never encountered a problem where connectivity is a barrier to our business model. For our particular situation it hasn’t been huge.”

Lack of interoperability among solutions is also cited as a drawback. Hoggard says it is huge and needs to be addressed, even if just to open up goodwill among those reluctant to engage. “I have to enter cow numbers into eight different programmes for different organisations. That’s just one piece of information. Surely I should be able to enter it just once.”

Townshend acknowledges that interoperability is relevant, particularly if the value proposition for entering data is not hugely compelling (where the benefits might be more often derived off rather than onfarm).

The issue is also frequently associated, as Hoggard implies, with digitising for compliance rather than digitising for farm management. He suggested that with better interoperability, there could be a more positive attitude towards compliance – if it meant data recorded could be used onfarm to enhance farmers’ own animal welfare and herd management.

Compliance is a turn-off in anyone’s mind so any attempt to sell agritech solutions based on benefits that accrue for others is hardly an endearing communication strategy.

“While farmers might be intensely pragmatic and fiercely independent, they’re not scared of technology. There will always be technophobes, but farmers do seem to be willing to go through a lot of pain if they think they can get value out of it.”

O’Connell acknowledges that effective communication on agritech benefits needs to be a priority if the right messages are to be heard. He says a current challenge is trying to make sense of so many people trying to promote so many different offerings.

It makes it difficult to make decisions and informed choices when it is unclear whether a solution will solve one problem and not another. Farmers can be forgiven for just deciding to wait and avoid being locked into a particular system. O’Connell says it’s not that sellers are being misleading, but the sheer number of voices is definitely an issue.

Possibly one of the key obstacles to greater agritech adoption to date is that what has been created has not been done with farmers in mind. Farmers have not necessarily been consulted on what they actually want and what they’d be willing to invest in.

Hoggard is convinced that agritech solutions, first and foremost, need to be labour-saving. “Farmers are thinking how they can get more information, diagnose animal health issues early, without hiring more people to do mundane tasks. Anything that will make farming more enjoyable and less of a grind.”

Townshend is acutely aware of this. The Trev reporting platform was developed over nearly six seasons, based on Scott’s experience as a commercial manager on a large central North Island dairy operation, and a determination to capture what farmers actually need.

“When we say the platform requires 10 minutes work a week, we really focus on that. When we have added information, we have to know that it will still take fewer than 10 minutes a week. We know this is central to the value farmers will see in the product.”

Mat Hocken, chair of The Rural Innovation Lab, a collaborative platform supporting farmers and growers to experiment with new technology, says uptake is definitely linked to how farmers can make better use of their time. “It might not be about reducing the number of people onfarm – there are plenty of farm operations still run by one or two people – but time saving is the big one.”

The research into what farmers actually want backs this up. “It’s tools that are labour saving, rather than those that are delivering new knowledge, that are most widely used onfarm,” says O’Connell. “These tools don’t always line up with labour-saving claims (draughting systems, automatic cup removers and so on), but it is often the case that they enable the same number of people to do better work.”

There could be key lessons here for aspiring developers – less about insights, more about task removal. O’Connell acknowledges that “more and more tools are claiming to offer insights, but some might not be hitting the mark”.

‘I do believe that greater adoption of digital tools by the ag sector in New Zealand will lead to a much more sustainable and productive industry.’

Possibly a good example of this, and the focus on farmers’ interest, can be seen in a longitudinal study carried out by DairyNZ into the adoption of new technology in herringbone and rotary dairy sheds between 2008 and 2018. The data shows clearly that automation technologies, including automated cup removers (up from 18% of all sheds in 2008 to 39% in 2018) and automatic drafting (up from 4% to 24%), have increasingly been adopted. However, uptake of information technology in dairy sheds has been much slower – for example electronic milk meters (up from 2% to 8%) and automatic heat detection (up from 0% to 3%).

In terms of stimulating demand, the Aotearoa Agritech Unleashed report suggests mandatory adoption of digital technology for processes that make sense should be contemplated.

Neither O’Connell nor Townshend is convinced compulsion is an adequate strategy to boost adoption in itself.

“The mandatory requirement for cattle to be registered to NAIT did little to encourage farmers to comply, which was evident following the M. bovis outbreak. Technology can’t be sold on the basis of compliance. The benefits of tools beyond that however, generates a much healthier conversation. Furthermore, knowing that farming is not homogenous, some farmers will run to a new solution, and others away from it. Finding one tool for a mandatory process is difficult,” O’Connell says.

Townshend says there has to be a happy medium between rigid rules and private enterprise working out the best fix for a problem. “It’s not impossible that a tool can be developed effectively that subscribes to frameworked definitions. But I’m sceptical of a compulsion to do it.”

Both, however, remain upbeat about more onfarm tech adoption of its own accord.

“I do believe that greater adoption of digital tools by the ag sector in New Zealand will lead to a much more sustainable and productive industry,” O’Connell says.

“It’s a very rewarding sector to be working in at the moment. It’s getting a lot of attention and we identify well with the growth of the primary industries.”

Townshend is convinced that farmer-focused solutions will become increasingly attractive. “We have tried to ensure the value to the business is there – [solutions] that can be used easily and regularly, and by all people working on the business. [Farmers can expect] that onfarm data management tools will bring people working on and off-farm closer together, with a shared sense of purpose.

“But I’m sceptical of a compulsion to do it and what that means for innovation.”