New technology to benefit Aussie farmers

Francesca Wallace
Sydney Monring Herald 

A wave of students soon to enter the workforce with agricultural science degrees will be awash with job opportunities, with five jobs for every graduate, research by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture suggests.

The University of Sydney has gone from 80 bachelor of science in agriculture students in 2010 to 140 in 2015, an increase of 75 per cent over five years.

Melbourne University experienced a similar increase. "There has been a 63 per cent increase in enrolments for our bachelor of agriculture course. We've seen a demographic change in people who want to be in agriculture." says Ken Hinchcliff, dean of the faculty of veterinary and agriculture sciences at Melbourne University.

The University of New England in Armidale saw an increase of 57 per cent over five years and La Trobe University in Victoria has had increases of about 25 per cent every year for since 2012.

At Charles Sturt University enrolments in agriculture business management at the Wagga Wagga campus are up dramatically on previous years, with 40 first-year students enrolled internally and 54 via distance.

But most graduates are expected to become analysts, consultants and scientists rather than farmers. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the number of farmers declined by 40 per cent in the 30 years to 2011.

Third-generation farmer Cameron Ward, 27, is bucking the trend. After completing a bachelor of agriculture and business at the University of New England, he has taken his academic skills back to the farm at Gunnedah.

He is concerned about the diminishing number of farmers.

"The land is so expensive … we need help from the government to get people into farming. There's nothing, no money from the government or the banks. Nothing for young people like myself.

"Young people won't end up owning their own land, and that's sad. We just can't afford it."

Whether they own the land or not, future farmers will rely on advanced forms of soil sensors, satellite technology, weather forecasts, probes and energy technology (including X-rays and microwaves) to "farm from the soil up", a recent conference, Soil, Big Data and the Future of Agriculture, in Canberra heard.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce pledged $1.5 million to a CSIRO real-time soil data project which will develop an interactive system to give farmers near real-time information about their farms.

Australia has some of the most fragile and impoverished soils in the world, Dr Michael Robertson, science director, CSIRO Agriculture says. "Maintaining their productive capacity is critical to continuing agricultural production from Australia's farmland."

One technique growing in popularity is soil mapping, which breaks down soil components, allowing the farmer to see what needs to be added, or left out, to allow the farm to perform better.

Dr Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the US Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, says the mapping of soil could lead to better crop yields and bigger animals.

"If we do not address soil-health issues, we will be seriously hindered from achieving nutritional security," he said.
Sheep and cattle farmer Cam Murray, 34, who left a law degree and paralegal job in London to take over the family farm outside of Walgett, is one of a new generation of farmers using technology to their advantage to increase productivity and profit.

"Young people aren't as emotionally attached as the older generation, we run the farm more as a business. We use GPS, apps and smartphones to help with farm management, weather, animal husbandry … Everyone is willing to try new ways of doing things."

Mr Ward is building computerised sheds to breed Chinese silky chickens, popular with the domestic Asian market.

"We're doing things a bit differently. The sheds will use computerised heating and cooling, and can alert me on my mobile if anything goes wrong."

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 

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