Raising resilience in rural, regional and remote Australia, by Mykala Wright, JCU College of Business, Law and Governance

Originally published by James Cook University, written by Mykala Wright, College of Business, Law and Governance. Published 15 February https://www.jcu.edu.au/this-is-uni/science-and-technology/articles/the-future-of-farming 

Agriculture is at the core of our food supply. But at the same time as the global demand for food increases, the industry faces intensifying challenges. JCU researcher Dr Rachel Hay says the adoption of new tools and new technologies is critical to securing the future of farming.

As well as being responsible for feeding our population, the Australian agricultural industry is an important contributor to the nation’s economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), the industry’s value is expected to reach over $80 billion in 2022-23 for the second year in a row.

“In the North Queensland region alone, agricultural production — made up of livestock, crops, fruit and nuts, vegetables and horticulture —is worth $7.27 billion,” Rachel says. “But agriculture faces many disruptive forces. In Queensland our weather can get really hot, it can get really cold, there can be lots of rain and it can be really dry.”

To prepare for such climate variability, a Tropical North Queensland Drought Resilience and Adoption Hub (TNQ Hub) was established in the Ideas Lab on the JCU Cairns, Nguma-bada campus, Smithfield.

Led by JCU and funded by the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund, the TNQ Hub is one of eight across Australia that brings together farmers, natural resource managers (NRMs), Indigenous landholders and supply chain businesses to develop innovative solutions for drought. Rachel is the Hub’s Knowledge Broker.

“Queensland recently introduced a policy where farmers can access funding to improve their drought preparedness. So, with the Hub, we’re trying to support producers to build their resilience for what’s coming in the future,” she says. “If we can understand how resilience planning and technology can help our management practices, we can have a more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable business.”

By bringing stakeholders together, the TNQ Hub will enable them to share knowledge and build critical skills in order to make informed management decisions and meet the growing demand for food.

“In order to feed the population and meet the goal of increasing agricultural production by 2050, we have to scale our practices through new tools and new technologies. Traditional methods alone won’t help us reach our targets.”

Dr Rachel Hay
Members of the Tropical North Queensland Drought Resilience and Adoption Hub (TNQ Hub). Supplied by Rachel Hay

A technological transformation

In addition to drought, the Australian agriculture industry faces supply chain disturbances, rising supply costs, worker shortages and consumers’ increasing desire for transparency and sustainability.

Technological innovation and adoption are the key to creating a more resilient agricultural region. Rachel says this is because real-time data helps farmers make day-to-day decisions that boost productivity and profitability.

“For example, weather apps are really important tools for planning,” she says. “Crop farmers can use them to look at the month’s rain forecast to ensure they can plant seeds and put fertiliser on without it being washed away, and cattle farmers can use them to decide when to start wet season spelling or when to put a urea lick out. Because if that gets wet from rain and the cattle eat it, it can lead to urea toxicity issues.”

Other beneficial technologies include walk over weighing systems, pregnancy testers, and traceability and tracking systems.

“The walk over weighing machine is set up as an entry point to water for the cattle. So, if a cow or steer walks over the system and they’re sale weight, they can be sent to market. If they go over and they’re underweight, they can go back to a feeder paddock where they can grow more,” Rachel says. 

“New technology in pregnancy testers can tell you if a cow is pregnant in early gestation and if there’s any inherent or genetic diseases in that cow, all in a matter of seconds.

“There’s also a lot of new technology coming out around traceability, because people want to know more about where and when their food is grown and processed, which is also good for biosecurity.”

Many of these technologies serve as management tools that allow farmers to determine where to allocate resources and evaluate the reproductive performance of their cattle.

“It’s all about the triple bottom line,” Rachel says.

“From an economic standpoint, if farmers are increasing productivity, they’re able to build better financial and natural asset reserves which increases the resilience of their farm. From a social standpoint, the farmers are able to provide employment and spend money in their local community which helps sustain businesses and regions. And from an environmental standpoint, if farmers are removing cattle from their property as soon as they are ready to go to market, the cattle are not eating as much grass and in turn there is more ground cover which means there is less runoff or erosion during periods of rainfall.”

Supplied by Rachel Hay
Supplied by Rachel Hay

Connectivity is the key

While digital technologies make for a more efficient and productive agricultural industry, unrestrained adoption requires improved internet infrastructure and connectivity.

“In the past it has been hard to get access to internet in the bush. But in more recent years a lot of money has been spent on infrastructure and there are a lot more options for farmers to get connected,” Rachel says.

“The problem is, they have been let down by poor connectivity and there is a lack of trust in that service. So, my current work is focused on changing how agricultural people think and feel about connectivity, getting them connected and ensuring they stay connected.”

Rachel says better connectivity will allow the agricultural industry to embrace a digital transformation.

“Once they’ve got internet connection sorted, we can consider the adoption process and what sort of technological products they might want or need,” she says.

As well as conducting the research herself, Rachel supervises PhD students who are investigating internet connectivity and technology adoption in rural, regional and remote areas. She says she is actively seeking more students and hopes to expand the research capacity within this critical area.

Interested in this field, or want to know more about how to be prepared for future climate variability? Reach out to Rachel.