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Brislen on Tech: Outstanding in our field

Paul Brislen, Editor. 18 June 2021, 3:48 pm

My youngest daughter went on a school trip to Fieldays this year, presumably so she could help look for the missing 'd' from the name.

Fieldays is back after a year off (2020, the year we didn't) and is still bigger and brighter than ever. Even though I told her to wear her wellies, she declined but in a shocking move, everywhere she walked at the agricultural marvel she walked on groomed footpaths. It's not like the old days, that's for sure.

Fieldays

And neither, to be frank, is the agricultural sector itself. Sure, they may not have the electric vehicles they'll need just yet (unless you count New Zealand's own Ubco electric farm bikes which have proved to be such a hit they're now being fitted with lights and mud guards for the city folk) but precision farming and data analysis are front and centre alongside giant utes, threshing machines and Red Band gumboots. Whatever they are.

Indeed, agritech is the new name of the game (it's even in the Fieldays strapline: "The Southern Hemisphere's largest agricultural event and the ultimate launch platform for cutting edge technology and innovation") and New Zealand would do well to focus less on increasing herd numbers and more on improving our access to the latest technologies if we are to continue to be (sorry about this) outstanding in our field.

Indeed, agritech is already big business and is growing swiftly. This year's Agritech Insights Report (released yesterday) from the Technology Investment Network suggests the sector is worth $1.4 billion with five companies in the $100m or above category and plenty more coming through. The sector makes up just over 11% of the TIN200 companies, and export growth is up 7.5% year on year.

Currently the sector is dominated by high-tech manufacturing rather than data and software. It's about new types of sorting machines, or pack house automation or electric fences and the like - only LIC and one or two others frame themselves as being in the software innovation space, and therein lies an opportunity for the tech sector.

Farms, like many other jobs, are now heavily data driven. They always have been to a degree, but the days of running a farm using a calendar and a desk calculator shaped like a pig are long over. Today's farmers need to track metrics ranging from rainfall, soil density and the spring in a sheep's wool right through to the GPS location of boundaries, animal health monitoring and so much more.

As automation reshapes the farming workforce, so too will data and data analytics come to the fore, allowing farmers to work remotely, cover vast acreages of land virtually and manage costs as they arise rather than in hindsight.

Surely this is a space New Zealand should thrive in?

As ever, the thing we lack is a focus on investment although in this case it's not just a problem in research and development. R&D investment has broken the $1 billion barrier finally (up 7% on last year) but investment in sales and marketing activity is up only by 2.2% and now sits at a paltry $192 million.

I don't like to encourage the colouring-in department too much but come on, agritech, that's woeful. How can you command a global presence and stride your markets like a behemoth if you don't tell anyone you're out there?

I guess $192 million does buy quite the stand at Fieldays and certainly plenty of swag to hand out, although I need to train up the kid some more. She didn't bring me a single bucket hat or t-shirt. 


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