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Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry
29/01/2016
Agricultural innovation

HUNT, Mr Peter, Executive Policy Manager, Victorian Farmers Federation

TUOHEY, Mr Peter, President, Victorian Farmers Federation

[09:35]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I would advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings in the House. I now invite you to make an opening statement of a few minutes, and then we will go on to questions.

Mr Tuohey : I would like to thank you for the opportunity to present to this inquiry. I want to talk about agriculture, which has long been an adopter of new ideas. European agriculture systems failed in Australia's dry climate and shallow, fragile soils. Early changes to our machinery, such as the stump-jump plough and the combine harvester, are early examples of how farmers soon changed and adapted their practices. We have come a long way since then—direct drilling, GPS, autosteer guidance with two-centimetre accuracy, robotic dairies; I could go on and on. Along with many ways of increasing the productivity of Australian agriculture through mechanical means, there have been just as many through the development of better breeding and disease, pest and other crop and animal management systems.

Australian agriculture is at a point where production increases will be single-digit improvements. Our next big increases in agricultural productivity will come through technological advances. We operate in a highly competitive global market, and only the most efficient farmers will survive. Examples of many of these technologies available or in the developmental stages are the use of satellite imagery to identify crop pasture disease, weed and nutrient deficiencies; the use of cow collars linked to GPS to monitor pasture, grazing habits and species consumption; and remote monitoring of stock through camera connectivity to the mobile network. This is also needed as a biosecurity backup and welfare of livestock, and those stock would be cows, sheep, pigs, and egg and meat chooks; automatic drafting through use of electronic e-tags, also connected through the mobile service; irrigation sensors and cross-sensing of fruit and vegetable crops.

These are just a few examples of some of the new technologies available now. Many more are being used or are about to be developed. Farmers will need to invest in many of these new innovative products to remain competitive and to look after the welfare and security of these animals as well as to increase the productivity of these properties. This is not possible at the moment. The reliability and the connectivity of voice and data available through either wireless or satellite in rural Australia is just not available, and even when it is available, through areas with minimal service, it is cost prohibitive. This puts rural Australia and our farmers and our farming businesses at a disadvantage compared with other countries around the world and even our city cousins.

I would like to finish off by saying that just a simple thing like online banking and bill payment is difficult for many farmers. Superannuation payments are now moving online. Just last week I had a call from a frustrated farmer complaining to me about trying to do stuff online. He said, 'It's bloody quicker to go to the nearest town,' 35 kilometres away, and do his business than to try to rely on the internet. On my own property I have three towers within 15 to 20 kilometres. Quite often, specifically over school holidays and after school comes home, there is no connectivity, and I rely on it on a daily basis to do my business for the VFF. Thank you.

Mr Hunt : I know you are obviously covering the full breadth of innovation issues—

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Hunt : but telecommunications came up early last year. Our grains group president, Brett Hosking, was getting incredibly frustrated. He is the bloke who has to climb up one of his silos on his property to get good mobile reception. We ended up doing a survey of over 500 members. Normally we struggle to get 100 or so people responding to surveys, and we got over 500 within about six weeks, it was such a hot issue, and other state farmer organisations have done the same thing since then. I think the biggest thing was that we asked people to download tests on their devices. We included the download speeds as part of our submission to the telecommunications review in a paper there, and you will see that the download speeds are miserable.

I think the real issue was that, increasingly, our members are connecting to the internet through portable devices and portable machinery, as Pete is saying. It is real-time data on your yield from the header. It is having the ability to utilise technologies that are coming through the pipeline which we are seeing amongst our competitors in the US and elsewhere, but there is a real bottleneck at the moment in Australia in being able to adopt those technologies because of this inadequacy in our telecommunications system.

We are well aware that obviously there is the NBN rollout, but the telecommunications review that came out last year made it clear that we have a number of problems. There are probably two key problems: one is that the NBN tower rollout does not actually allow mobile carriers to utilise those towers, and there needs to be some changes there; and the other is that, at the moment, we are spending—I am pretty sure my numbers are right here—$297 million a year with $253 million of that on the copper network and the remaining $44 million on the payphone system in the country. Meanwhile, we have an allocation of $160 million over four years to the Mobile Black Spot Program. So that is an average of $40 million a year to the Mobile Black Spot Program and $297 million towards maintaining a copper network and payphones. We have argued—and as our submission and others that were lodged with the telecommunications review made clear—that that agreement with Telstra to maintain the copper network and payphones, which is a 20-year contract signed in July 2012, has an enormous amount of resources going into maintaining a network. Is that still relevant and are there are opportunities to divert some of that money back into a broadband service?

The telecommunications review makes it very clear that we need to move towards setting a consumer service standard which is about the delivery and not the technology that is used to deliver it. It talks about whether we can move towards—and we still have to have this debate internally within the Victorian Farmers Federation and nationally—perhaps sacrificing or closing down some of those copper networks on the basis that the service quality service standard is met through other technologies such as mobile and wireless.

So that is where our submission on telecommunications is heading. I was glad to see that the three-yearly review with Su McCluskey, who came along to our conference last year and heard us present on this issue, has listened. I think the problem they have at the moment is that they are looking at the fact that Telstra has a 20-year contract to maintain the universal service obligation, which is just minimum standard voice over line. I think they are little bit cautious that that is an issue the federal government has to deal with but, again, it is crucial for innovation in regional Australia.

CHAIR: Speaking as one who has to climb onto the top of my roof to get a mobile phone signal—and I do have a rather large aerial there—I do understand those issues in a very real way. It is not the time to have a debate over the NBN but, of course, by mid this year we expect to have the first of the satellites working. Whether or not that is going to meet the demand and how farmers, in particular, deal with that signal once they have it at the household or at the designated point on their farms and what they do with it then is some developing technology. There is $40 million a year, or $160 million over four years, going into the mobile phone network, which is new money and making an appreciable difference. We know that the mobile phone signal will never get everywhere; it is not that type of technology. We are supposed to be going to Armidale to have a look at the CSIRO SMART farm where I believe they are developing something in that area for broadbased signals across farms. My feeling is that, when we get the satellites working, it will be time for a reassessment of where we are then. Do you see it as being a groundbreaking moment when we have fast and ubiquitous satellite coverage, because it cannot be compared to the satellite service we have now?

Mr Tuohey : It will certainly be a step in the right direction.

CHAIR: It will fix your problem?

Mr Tuohey : It will not fix a lot of my problems. The technology is out there and farmers are picking up the technology, whether it is in the tractor or on the header or the dairy farm that is just down the road. They are all keen, particularly the younger ones—the ones who are really going to move and push productivity. They want to use this technology and they do spend a lot more time in the office in running their farms. It was not that long ago that I met a farmer who works in Melbourne and he is hoping to run his farm from Melbourne in the future. He needs that technology to work.

CHAIR: He needs mobile phone technology? Is that what you are saying?

Mr Tuohey : Yes, and he needs broadband to work too—the NBN technology. I am not sure whether it is going to—

CHAIR: Presumably their broadband would work, wherever they have their home computer set up, but you are saying they need the mobile phone platform for it to work?

Mr Tuohey : We need both to work. The technology requires both of those systems to work. Some of the systems are on the mobile systems and some are on the NBN. Plant sensing and a lot of the imagery will come through the NBN. In our area, Echuca will be covered and some other areas, but there will be a big patch in between.

CHAIR: 'A big patch'—an absence of what?

Mr Tuohey : Of farming land. My house and my farm will not be covered. We cannot access—

CHAIR: Will not be covered by what?

Mr Tuohey : NBN.

CHAIR: Of course it will.

Mr Tuohey : Not in the short term.

CHAIR: No, of course it will. The satellites will be operating by May.

Mr Tuohey : But we have been told they have been fully subscribed.

CHAIR: I do not think that is correct.

Mr Hunt : Certainly the service has been fully subscribed. The Skymaster satellites obviously come online in April-May this year. The first one and the second one will be launched later this year. The issue is that the mobile technology is crucial for things like diagnostics on the tractor—

CHAIR: I am very keen to split the two so we actually understand what we are talking about in the conversation. I will hand on to someone else.

Ms McGOWAN: I am really keen to follow up on what you are saying. I am with you: if we do not have the telecommunications we need. I take you to the next place. Let's assume we get it. In the next period of time we have the satellites up, we have much better NBN, we have the review of the telecommunications in place, the government has accepted the recommendations and we have the fund in place. Let's just hope that has happened in the short term, because that is what we are working for. Then let's take the discussion to the next step. We have the innovation that we have just been hearing about: genomics and sensing. We are into that place. Can you talk about it from a farming business point of view—the VFF: how do we work to get the step up that we need in agricultural production in Victoria? We heard yesterday that it used to be the car industry, manufacturing, but now it is agriculture. South Australia and WA can join us, but that is going to be our core business, so we really need to step up production, value-adding and education with it. That is what I am really interested in. How can we work with the farmer organisations to get that delivery and the pick-up? You are our key chance of penetrating into that mass market of farming businesses. Can you talk to us about what we would need to put into this report so that the innovations that the universities are doing are taken up by our farm organisations and our farming families and groups out there?

Mr Tuohey : It is firstly about building confidence that the system will work. Through the VFF and the NFF, there is talk of developing an online system, and through that technology most farmers will be able to access a lot of data and move on to the next step where they are going to do the remote sensing and a whole range of activities. Along with improved genetics, they have improved capacity. You need to make sure you manage what goes into the animal and have its welfare at a high level to get the increased production. It is about linking all the systems together and support of that. If government is very supportive of that, the NFF can develop the linking of that online platform to make sure that happens. That is the first stage. That is probably—

Ms McGOWAN: Can we as a committee do anything to support that or do you have what you need in place for that platform?

Mr Tuohey : I think there is certainly a place for government to support everything that we are doing as agriculture, because I think extra support will make a difference. It will give farmers the confidence. A lot of the technology is there already. It has been adopted. A lot of the big manufacturers, particularly machinery manufacturers, have adopted technology. As I said, we have had auto steer and things in tractors and there are yield minders in tractors and all that sort of stuff. So that is already happening. It is already provided on a commercial basis. The reliability has not been there in the past, so there has been low uptake. Farmers in future will be the business manager. I see in the future that it will be nearly one-on-one, so one farmer, one consultant, one mechanic. It is growth of an industry. The service industry will be working with the agriculture industry. I think the support through the university system—trying to develop those people with those capabilities to support the technology, because it is probably not there at the moment. If I have a problem with my tractor, a bloke has to come out with a computer to fix it. It is already starting to work that you can do that remotely. So, if a fault comes up in my tractor, if I buy a tractor even in two years time, they will be able to fix it from Melbourne, hopefully. But those service industry people probably are not quite there at this stage. Quite a few of the younger farmers are the ones who are going to adopt it. Farmers my age are very keen to adopt it, but we are a bit nervous about spending the extra money to make sure what is going to happen.

Ms McGOWAN: Can I just summarise that. The NFF and the VFF and other farmer organisations are working on this online platform that we think will be ready in about two years. So in some way we could follow up to see what we might be able to do to support you in that area?

Mr Tuohey : Yes.

Ms McGOWAN: Thanks.

CHAIR: I will move away from the telecommunications issue, which we have obviously spent a fair bit of time on. Where do you see the next big thing is in agriculture? Aside from the electronic revolution, which one way or another will happen, where do you see the other possibilities being? We have just had a meeting with AusBiotech, talking about the possibility of genomics and things like that. As a farming organisation, where do you see the productivity gains coming from?

Mr Tuohey : Genetics is certainly the step up. When you go to the US, where they have a lot more improved genetics, they use GMOs as one of those steps. So there is less use of chemicals and more use of genetics to withstand dry years, salt tolerances, disease tolerances and those sorts of things. It is a combination of using both of those technologies to get the steps. As I said, they will be small steps, but they will certainly put us on a level playing field with a lot of the other countries. The US is leading, but countries in the Middle East and Israel are already doing that sort of stuff, and they have made huge productivity gains. Particularly if you get into irrigation, we have some pretty good irrigation infrastructure. The consequence of that is that people want to irrigate again now. They love it. It is fantastic. They get huge production increases just by improving the infrastructure. With the better technology and managing it even better, they will get even further increases.

CHAIR: What about the path to market? Do you see any scope for technology? This is one of the great costs for farmers—certainly where I live, the cost of getting grain overseas is a large part of the cost of production.

Mr Tuohey : The biggest cost of that freight is just getting it from farm gate to port. So more competitiveness around that area will help. Technology, real changes in freight movement—so changes to trains, changes to transport—will certainly do that. I think improved technology will certainly help to an extent, but how much—I think the gains will certainly be at the farm gate, the farm level, more than the transport area. I think competitiveness will improve that. To move stuff offshore is pretty cheap, but to get it from farm gate to port—and sometimes that can be 30 per cent—

CHAIR: It is not just the transport cost. It is getting it on the boats that is a big expense.

Mr Tuohey : Yes.

Mr ZAPPIA: You just touched on irrigation infrastructure. Can you give me some of the examples you were alluding to when you said that improvements in irrigation are making a difference?

Mr Tuohey : Certainly, the use of spray lateral and drip systems has reduced the amount of water—the infrastructure delivering the water properly. A lot of it has been piped now, certainly reducing water usage that way. Farmers are getting more out of every drop of water. To go back to a cropping system, we used to work on 20 kilograms per millimetre of rainfall. They are using the same sort of measurement on irrigation. So, flood irrigation was very effective. Spray is even more effective, but underground drippers are even more effective now. You only have to go to a place at Paingil where there is a young farmer who has all underground tapes and he is getting over 30 tonnes a hectare in annual production.

CHAIR: What is he growing?

Mr Tuohey : He is double-cropping. He is growing corn and then a winter cereal. He has a fairly tight management regime and he is doing a fantastic job. He was a vege grower, somewhere up around Mildura. They bought, I think, Piangil farmers—

CHAIR: When you say corn, are you talking about sweet corn?

Mr Tuohey : No, that would be just normal feed corn.

Mr Hunt : The thing is that we have had a lot of negative publicity on the connections project recently. The reality is that those have actually tapped into that are getting enormous benefits, right from—

CHAIR: I do not know what the connections program is.

Mr Hunt : The connections project used to be called the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project, then, before that, the Food Bowl Plan. Various governments at the state level—

Ms McGOWAN: Upstate irrigation infrastructure—

Mr Hunt : What has happened there is that using telemetry we have gotten rid of the old regulators, where the water bailiff had to come along and pull out a slat or put one in. We now have automated gates in there that are controlled remotely from the office in Tatura, in the GMW.

CHAIR: Gates would be indicated still in channels that—

Mr Hunt : Yes, so the within-channel regulators. Then, on farm, we have a variety—usually Magflow meters or others. So we are getting rid of the Dethridge wheels as part of that. On the efficiencies have been gained out of that, for example, the first trials were actually done in the Macalister Irrigation District. Through what is called high-flow flood irrigation, they managed to reduce the consumption of water from 12 megalitres a hectare down to seven. That is a massive saving. Again, these technologies are crucial for future agriculture.

Talking about the dairy industry for a second, we have heard a lot about genomics and the potential of genomics in the dairy industry. We have seen some work done in regard to sire evaluation, and so on, being used there. But the reality is that there has been high-digestibility rye grass and [inaudible] resistant clover sitting there for quite a few years now. We have not seen that rollout in the dairy industry. Our UDV, the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria group, which has gotten frustrated in recent years about the slow rollout—what is happening with it. And, of course, there are issues around marketing pacts, which some of the processors are concerned about, if we released a GM clover or a GM rye grass.

Genomics has potential but the reality is that I think the real gains that have occurred in recent years have been around technology, and we have to look at the regulatory environment and how we are going to deal with some of those technologies. We have already had privacy issues around drones. We are probably going to have driverless tractors. The technology exists. We have had a member in Victoria pulled up by WorkSafe in regard to running a tractor across a field at about one kilometre an hour, I think it is, with his workers harvesting [inaudible], because there was not a driver on it. They just blocked it in and it was putting along at nothing, but the regulatory environment is that there has to be somebody sitting on that tractor. So, at a government level, and at a state level in particular, we have to look at the regulatory environment and how we are going to deal with these new technologies as they come along. That is an important part of the process.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance here today. I don't think you have been asked for any additional information. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of the evidence and you will have an opportunity to request corrections to any transcription errors.

Mr Tuohey : I just want to quickly touch on the remote sensing or remote viewing of livestock, particularly in water and intensive areas, where you can monitor them remotely. It is a real welfare issue and there are some real gains in that, as well. I think that often gets missed, especially on the bigger properties, where you monitor stock levels, what is happening, and their water. In the intensive ones you can monitor those very closely. That is not only against people intruding who should not be there, but also to make sure that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing—

CHAIR: Are you concerned that things in animal welfare will go wrong if there are no people out there? Is that what you are saying?

Mr Tuohey : It is one of the ways of monitoring 24 hours a day to ensure that everything is going all right. Then an alarm can be set off. Already, some of our poultry producers have those alarms and things in place. It is something that will continue to grow.

CHAIR: Thank you.