Thursday, 13 October 2016
From ancient Sumer during the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago to the Wheatbelt in central Western Australia, the question on every farmer’s mind remains the same.
How can you extract enough food from the land to feed those who need it?
And just as the question has remained the same across millennia, so has the answer: innovation.
Australian farmers are among the most efficient in the world.
This is despite very poor soils across much of the continent as well as low levels of government farm subsidies (by international standards). Yet, Australian farmers export more than $41 billion worth of produce each year.
They provide 93 per cent of food eaten domestically, and help feed some 40 million people outside of Australia every day.
But Australia’s position as an agricultural innovator could be under threat from falling levels of investment in research and development.
In its 2016 review of farming exports, the Australian Farm Institute found our farmers were losing market share to competitors in the developing world, where production is being rapidly expanded.
At the same time, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that the amount of land suitable for farming is under threat from climate change, salinity, erosion and nutrient loss.
And research from the University of Minnesota has found that between 1960 and 2009, Australia fell from 9th to 16th place in proportional spending on research and development in the agricultural sector.
It’s a decline individual farmers and researchers are hoping to arrest, recognising that to grow our agricultural sector we must develop new ways to grow food more efficiently and sustainably.
For all the technology that has been brought to bear on modern farms, farmers are still faced with a dilemma as old as agriculture itself: trying to predict what will happen next season.
They have to make decisions about what varieties of crops to plant, how much fertiliser to use and what land to use, based on what they think will happen months in the future.
This is where the worlds of agriculture, big data and machine learning collide.
Tony White, a farmer in the central Wheatbelt, knows well the need for innovation. Over his 30 years working the land, he has seen and implemented advances to farming technology and practices at a breakneck speed.
With GPS-guided tractors, a harvester that can differentiate between grains and weed seeds, and scientific application that has led to more efficient use of herbicides, White exemplifies the reasons the modern farmer cannot afford to stand still.
“Things are always changing and there is always a better way of doing things,” he says.
“One area that you need to be good at is handling data.
“We use satellite imagery combined with aerial drones to get an overlay of how the crop is growing. If we see an area of the field that is not growing well, we can look at it and we have to decide whether to put some more fertiliser down.
“The more data you have, the more you can minimise the unknowns of farming and hopefully maximise your yields.”
Concepts like data mining, neural networks and spatial interpolation may sound like they have little application to farmers, but for Dr Leisa Armstrong, from ECU’s School of Science, they go hand in hand.
As leader of ECU’s eAgriculture Research Group, she works to take information communications technology research and apply it to the challenges farmers face each season.
“The most effective tool farmers have is information that allows them to acquire knowledge and make decisions based on that knowledge,” she says.
One of the projects the group has been developing is an automated decision support system for farmers in WA’s Wheatbelt.
The system works by collating huge amounts of data on average rainfall, yearly wheat crop yields and soil types from hundreds of locations across the region. Using this data, an artificial neural network is used to predict crop yields for different varieties of wheat.
“The automated decision support system is designed to be simple to use and easy for farmers,” Armstrong says.
“It displays information graphically so farmers can get useful information.”
Of course, working out what to plant, where and when is just one part of the puzzle. Ensuring the crop thrives during its growing season against competitors is another.
One project under development at ECU’s Electron Science Research Institute (ESRI) is the Photonic Weed Detection System, which can identify weeds within a field of crops and apply a spray herbicide directly.
“This system has the potential to reduce the use of herbicides by farmers by as much as 75 per cent,” ESRI Director Kamal Alameh says.
“This could not only greatly cut costs for farmers but also reduce the amount of herbicides that enter the environment.”
The system works by using three lasers of different wavelengths in conjunction with a camera, which together scan the paddock surface at a speed exceeding 20 kmh.
The information from the reflected beams and camera is analysed by the system, which is then able to pinpoint weeds with herbicide, leaving the surrounding crops unsprayed.
Receiving just 200mm of rain annually, the arid region of south‑eastern Spain near the city of Almeria was home to very little agriculture 35 years ago.
Today, thanks to 26,000 hectares of greenhouses, the area produces more than half of the fruit and vegetables eaten in Europe.
Such is the power of greenhouses to turn areas of marginal agricultural use into food-bowls.
Now, researchers from ESRI’s state of the art laboratories have developed a revolutionary greenhouse that has the potential to make the driest of deserts bloom.
The greenhouse is built out of transparent glass panels that can generate 50 watts of power per square metre of surface area, while allowing 70 per cent of visible light to pass through and blocking more than 90 per cent of the solar UV and IR radiations.
Alameh says this can provide enough power to run heating or cooling for the greenhouse, as well as desalination to provide water – vital considering how much of Australia is desert.
“One of the major challenges for food production in many parts of the world is getting enough water,” he says.
“Being able to selectively control light radiation, thus maximising the crop yield, while producing and storing electricity for water desalination, irrigation, heating and air conditioning, will enable greenhouses to operate in a closed environment.
“They can operate with minimum water and nutrient delivery in areas that currently cannot support food production due to a shortage of suitable water.”
These breakthroughs are signs of how farming has changed. Successful food production is now as much about the research conducted by men and women in laboratories as it is by those on the land.
But as White says, it is a change that is inevitable.
“Farms are businesses,” he says.
“If there is a better way of doing things that can improve the bottom line, you have to embrace that change.”
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