AgriTech

Earth Matters: Soil Meets Technology

‘The history of every Nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil’ . A powerful statement made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 as he signed America’s Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act.  And a message that perhaps rings more true today than ever before in the history of modern agriculture. In a bid to feed more and more people as cheaply and as profitably as possible, conventional agricultural production has significantly intensified over the past 100 years. And with this has come the spiraling decline of soil quality, water and land use in almost every country worldwide. Unprecedented levels of soil degradation, agrochemical use, intensified farming methods, toxic waterway run off and pesticide resistance are just a handful of the many dire issues eroding the health and future of today’s well-oiled yet slow to innovate agricultural machine.

It comes as no surprise then that players within the global agricultural sector have fast become the subject of intense public scrutiny. New Zealand farmers and ag business leaders in particular, are facing acute pressure to clean up their act as our once lauded clean and green New Zealand Inc brand (on which so many of their export dollars hinge) is being increasingly undermined by the eroding environmental performance of our beef, dairy and other ag industries as intensification reigns supreme.

The arguments for sustainable land management and environmental health are not generally in dispute by Kiwi farmers. They, along with most of us, know that thriving soil and water health typically leads to equally thriving outputs, people and profits. Nevertheless, irrespective of this sentiment, there is still a marked gap between environmental theory and practice for New Zealand’s ag sector and Kiwi farmers’ environmental track record is far from squeaky clean – particularly as they continue to squeeze more and more productivity from their sectors. Polluted waterways, toxic nitrogen run-off from fertilisers and green house gas emissions from farting cows are just some of the nasty bi-products tainting the sector’s image of purity and health.  However, up until now, Kiwi farmers have had very little access to practical and user friendly technology tools to help them to better manage, monitor and improve the environmental performance of their agricultural operations. So pointing the dirty finger is not exactly fruitful.

Recognising this void, the Smart Farming Group, a New Zealand based not-for-profit charitable trust funded largely by the Tindall Foundation, decided to fill it with a solution that would help to promote sustainable agricultural and land management among New Zealand’s pastoral farmers. Hallelujah. Smart Farming Group’s first cab off the rank, in its quest to promote sustainable agricultural and land management among New Zealand pastoral farmers, is its Smart Farm system. A free smart phone app and online tool which, when coupled with practical land management practices, enables farmers to monitor, measure and improve the environmental performance of their farms at minimal cost.

The Smart Farming system has been designed to help farmers keep track of and monitor, in real time, environmental farm practices including soil, water, air and natural habitats. Practical and technological at once, users receive a field kit to measure aspects of land management such as worms, infiltration of water into soil, water quality, water management, biodiversity and air clarity. Then they input this wide range of data via their smart device of choice into the app, which is relayed back to the Smart Farms website. From there they are able to view and learn how to improve the environmental performance across these various areas. A seemingly simple system. But a first for New Zealand – and possibly even globally.

Smart Farm has yet to be officially launched to New Zealand’s larger farming community and is currently in testing phase with a large Kiwi agricultural client. The primary focus is currently on providing farmers with key measurements that inform pastoral soil management as a way to achieve healthy crop and grass growth without compromising soil and environmental health. According to one of Smart Farms trustees, Clayton Wallwork, long term monitoring of soil nutrients such as phosphorous and organic matter levels are vital for informing careful application of fertilisers and sustainably managing soil quality. A feature that couldn’t have come sooner with farm effluent and degrading water ways from the dairy sector having fast become issues of hot public debate across the country. Once stage one of the system (soil management) gains acceptance amongst the Kiwi farming community, Wallwork says the tool will extend its monitoring features to include water and air quality, riparian (waterways) fencing and planting, bush remnants restoration, wetlands flora and fauna, native birdlife, GMO reporting, erosion prone land to forest and no-till crop practices. Further, while Smart Farm’s focus is on environmental health, farmers can also use it to report on items such as financial planning, nutrient budgets or their community involvement. “Instead of trying to tackle issues of New Zealand’s agricultural sector authoritatively from the top down, we wanted the Group to focus on building practical, easy to use solutions for individual farmers from the bottom up as a way to promote sustainable farm management. That is where the gap is and where the major opportunity lies for our industry”. 

Wallwork says three key principles helped drive the creation of the Smart Farms system. And collectively, these have helped the system to carve out a very unique value proposition.

Bottom up, practical outcomes

The first being to maximise long-term sustainable profitability for farmers. For example, those trialing the tool have already witnessed staggering differences in soil condition between the middle of the paddock to “control” measurements taken along fence lines, says Wallwork. If you’re a farmer this type of information is invaluable for the environment as it is beneficial for the bottom line. Especially when it comes to assessing the impact of grazing or cultivation as well as highlighting compacted, poorly aerated soils that need time to recover, and determine acceptable effluent application rates. “In most cases water runs four times more freely near the fence than in the paddock. So if we know that we’ve got a certain infiltration rate and we know the water sinks in at a certain rate then we can apply effluent in the correct quantities back over certain pasture or maybe spread it a bit further. Or in winter we know not to apply it over areas that are water logged”.

So easy even Grandpa can use it

The second principle? The system had to be both practical and easy use.  A vital must have particularly since the older generation of kiwi farmers are particularly renowned for being attached to their traditional and technology-averse farming methods.  It takes farmers no more than half a day, twice a year to carry out Smart Farms’ key on-farm measures. A far cry from many farm management systems. And the app has been designed with rapid entry in mind, enabling farmers to swiftly upload measurements, images and relevant data to an online database so they can speedily and easily record and track progress made on how they manage their land and engage in more sustainable land management practices. All data entered in the app is captured on the Smart Farms’ website which provides users with a comprehensive and easy-to-understand picture and progress of their farm’s environmental health year on year.  “It’s a simple tool that takes two half days a year. You collect this data over a number years and you start getting a number of good trends and it helps you manage your farm with a number of good outcomes” says Wallwork. “It also gives farmers a level of self control and a basis for decision making”. Farmers can compare their notes and share results with other farmers helping disseminate vital environmentally beneficial practices industry wide.  In doing so the system effectively enables users to improve both environmental and financial outcomes -off and on-farm.

Digging For Worms

Digging For Worms

Upping the New Zealand Inc brand

The third key principle driving the development of the Smart Farms system was that it had to demonstrate transparency and integrity of New Zealand’s farm products so that the industry as a whole could gain further and easier access to high-value local and international markets. The environmental health evidence collected by Smart Farms provides a standard and verifiable set of information on the farm that can be directly linked to the product as it moves through the supply chain and can be communicated to end use customers like large international supermarket chains such as Whole Foods who purchase from suppliers on the basis of environmental performance and ethical practices. The tool has also been developed to be compatible with the New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard (NZSD). Highly beneficial as the world is increasingly weighing in heavily on bad farming practices and voting with their dollars.   “We believe this is an essential first step to building reliable communication with markets and achieving long term credibility around a premium NZ brand for natural foods” Wallwork says.

The system is also able to demonstrate how on-farm practices benefit the farm and the wider community and assist engagement with other interested parties including land managers, customers, financiers, regulators, and insurers.  It shows our markets that we are doing something.  We can show our customers, our councils and our neighbours ‘Look, I do have a riparian area, my soils are good, I’ve got some worms and I am not irresponsibly dumping effluent. When it rains water goes into the soil and doesn’t run off taking all the nitrates with it’. That kind of thing.”

Further, since the Smart Farms system is essentially a meta databank for every farmer or ag player in the New Zealand market, it marks the well overdue start of a simple and credible system for collating environmental health information for New Zealand’s agricultural industry as a whole. A major point of differentiation compared to other cloud based farm reporting tools on the market according to Wallwork. “Right now no one provides a “Citizen Science” tool for farmers across the board to measure environmental aspects of farms like this”.

With the system having yet to be officially launched to New Zealand’s farming community, it’s still early days in terms of just how effective Smart Farms will be in helping to benefit New Zealand’s environment, farmers and ag industry at large. However, the future looks promising. Wallwork says the short term goal for the Smart Farming Group is to secure at least 1000 large New Zealand based agricultural farming customers as it gets up and running. From there it intends to adapt the programme to the specific needs of its clients as its demand and client base grows. 

Right now Smart Farms have a small but growing number of test case clients with a positive response.  For example one farmer who is developing a direct marketing strategy for his beef suggests this system “could be gold for him” as his clients would be able to track his environmental performance on farm. For example such as capturing the extra effort that farmers make like the trees planted or retirement and restoration of a remnant of native bush or wetland development on their farm. Other aspects which we take for granted in NZ but are important to our markets like GMO free and pollution free air are also demonstrated by the system.   A key feature of the system is the ability to provide evidence from in-field tests which show trends over time so interested parties like the community and councils to see if and how much progress is being made on critical issues like water quality. 

Smart Farm’s international growth potential looks equally as positive. The Group intends to license the Smart Farm’s technology and business model internationally to players in lucrative and larger agricultural markets throughout the world. “We hope to license the technology worldwide. We have already had expressions of interest from people who work in third world countries”. Meaning in addition to helping our farmers add more value to our export revenue by enhancing the sector’s value chain, the Smart Farm technology itself has the potential to lure even more export revenue from environmentally conscious farmers worldwide. A win-win for the Kiwi economy and the environment at large. 

With few competitors circulating in this space, and a domestic agricultural sector ripe for environmental progress and change, Smart Farms might just be the solution needed to help Kiwi farmers earn back their once lauded reputation as some of the world’s more innovative and progressive agricultural stewards. As well as providing a necessary tool for instilling long term resilience into such a pivotal sector of our national economy. All going well, Roosevelt would be proud of New Zealand’s progress. Smart farming could very well hinge on smart soil.

For more information, visit the Smart Farming Program website and/or subscribe to the Smart Farming Program’s newsletter.

About the author

Dr Rosie Bosworth

Dr Rosie Bosworth

A fresh voice in a crowded landscape, Dr Rosie Bosworth is a strategic innovation consultant and communications professional with a penchant for driving competitive business growth through disruptive innovation and game changing technology platforms. With over 6 years consulting experience in business innovation, a PhD in disruptive sustainable innovation and technology development, and a background in marketing and account management, Rosie harbours a rare breadth of skills and competencies vital for helping firms thrive in today's dynamic and rapidly changing business landscape.

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