IF you think the focus on modern agricultural technology means an imminent shift to a baffling array of whiz-bang gadgets, the story of New Zealand’s tech savvy farmers may give you pause for thought.
Over the ditch, they enjoy significantly better mobile network connectivity, with cutting-edge dairy industry and a tight-knit farm sector adept at sharing knowledge.
But the average farmer is not yet reaching for the lab coat to become an expert in latest scientific discovery.
In fact, New Zealand’s homegrown companies may point the way for Australian agtech, where there is no shortage of sceptical farmers who are baffled by boffins and their seemingly complex solutions.
Kiwis are tapping a promising market, supplying simple, productive management tools to the everyday farmer.
One of the most prominent ‘plug-and-play’ tech companies is Harvest.
The company was founded by Peter Munn in 1990 with when he developed a solution for remote monitoring of software vending machines and he has been making hay in the farm sector for more than a decade.
“When we first took our product to field days, and told farmers our fees, they would swear,” Mr Munn recalled.
“But now, it’s a doddle. They’re all used to paying for software. We’re frantically busy.”
Mr Munn entered the ag sector in 2004 with remote frost email or SMS alarms for orchards and vineyards.
For the past couple of years Harvest’s wireless on farm system, which uses the mobile network, has expanded its product offering to tap into the 15,000 farmer-strong dairy market.
Harvest has installed 3000 units across the country, and gained near saturation in Kiwi orchards and a strong presence in frost-risk wineries, with nearly 800 systems in each industry, with most of the remainder in dairy.
The company, based in rural Masterton at the south end of the North Island, employs 24 staff.
It also services industrial applications, such as rail track monitoring for Kiwirail.
Harvest has a couple of hundred units Down Under, but Mr Munn reports New Zealand’s enticing market potential means Australia will remain on the ‘to do’ list for some time.
Harvest’s main dairy trade comes from irrigators. It delivers an internet of things (IoT) that connects on-farm weather stations with forecasting services, evapotranspiration measurements, and soil moisture probes to maximise pasture irrigation efficiency, and to aid feed budgeting.
After an initial investment of $3000 in a base unit, plus moisture probes, Harvest charges an ongoing fee of $55 a month.
“Soil moisture measurement is an absolute no-brainer for anyone who irrigates,” Mr Munn said.
“We can calculate and display the field capacity (soil moisture level and depth) for different soil types and our web app shows how what watering is required to optimum field capacity.”
Harvest takes a no-frills, common sense approach to marketing. Advertising relies on word of mouth and agricultural field day promotions.
There are six staff, one quarter of the roster, dedicated to customer service.
Mr Munn said the cost of hardware for on-farm IoT will fall rapidly as competition heats up and mass production reduces costs.
“Every farm has machinery that doesn’t work. We want to make sure customers can sort out any questions with our products. Our point of difference are our service staff,” he said.
Harvest also offers milk vat monitoring, with volume measurements, alerts for freezing risks to prevent milk downgrades and quality control for plant washing.
Mr Munn expects compliance monitoring to grow.
Harvest supplies irrigation pump monitors controls for river water extraction, which can be linked directly to report directly to New Zealand’s to consent authority.
The company also supplies monitoring systems for effluent ponds, which store dairy shed waste for irrigation to return nutrients to pasture.
The systems measure pond levels. Measurements are compared with evapotranspiration to monitor effluent leakage.
Compliance monitors are a likely growth market, as authorities on both sides of the ditch target workforce efficiency and technology to swap staff with remote sensing technology.
- Mike Foley travelled to New Zealand as a guest of Vodafone.