Embracing change

The self propelled robot navigates its way along a row of fruit trees, constantly checking its location to ensure its wheels are placed to within a few centimetres precision of where it needs to be. It takes many thousands of images and measurements of the tree canopy in a split second, assessing fruit quality, colour, size and ripeness. Based on the information collected, it harvests only fruit that is at perfect colour and ripeness. The fruit that is picked by the robot is then once again photographed several times. Blemished fruit is separated out. A wealth of information is collected by the robot about each individual piece of fruit, down to which individual bud on which branch on which tree it was picked from. This information is compiled and analysed to adjust future management decisions.

Robotic fruit picker

Image of robot used by Salah Sukkarieh, professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney

The supermarket shelves consist of fresh produce of colours, forms, shapes, sizes and tastes like we have never seen before. There is also food that has been produced by 3D printers, made to a precise formula to provide specific nutritional needs and more consistently than ever before possible to meet pre-determined flavour profiles.

Fresh produce is no longer just grown in rural areas. It is also grown in cities, in specially built warehouses, on city walls and rooftops, in closed loop systems that use recycled city water.

Consumers can scan a printed QR code on their fruit or vegetables to get nutritional information, recipe ideas and information on where the produce came from and how it was grown. This is matched against their individual taste preferences, determined by brain scans to provide suggestions on what they should purchase.

Am I talking science fiction, a future that our children may experience many years down the track? Absolutely not! This is picture that is almost a reality now and will more than likely occur within the next ten to twenty years.

Robotic technology is advanced and already exists in many arenas. Scientists tell us that we will quite possibly have commercial robotic apple harvesters within 10 years. Advanced breeding programs mean we are seeing a range of new and exciting fruit and vegetable cultivars coming onto the market at a rate never seen before. 3D printing is a reality and NASA is already creating food for the space program using that technology. Vertical farms and warehouse farms are already a reality.

These changes described alone may sound sterile and surreal, and like any change may invoke feelings of fear and trepidation. But these innovations will not replace our existing food system. Instead, they will add many new layers of complexity, richness and excitement to our food and serve to bring about different ways of producing food. Food will continue to remain at the centre piece of our social fabric and bring great pleasure and enjoyment.

Just as we have been innovating since the beginning of mankind, so we will continue to innovate. Australian agriculture continues to lead the way in innovation, steeped in a history of resourcefulness and incredible adaptability. Our modern farmers have to adapt and change their practices at a very rapid pace to stay competitive. They are constantly seeking to improve their management and find new tools to not only take care of our fragile landscapes, but also improve them, all the while seeking to provide safe and healthy food.

The modern farmer is a far cry from the stereotypical and sometimes patronizing images that often bombard our television screens and magazines. They are, in every sense of the word, professionals, going about doing their jobs to the very best of their ability. It is because of their constant innovation that our farming practices have evolved and that the quality and choice of food available to us today is greater than ever before.

We are spoilt for diversity in choice of how our food has been produced and the types of foods that are available to us. This is only a reality through innovation in all kinds of farming systems. As an industry, we are also fortunate to be able to provide a wide range of opportunities for enthusiastic individuals seeking innovation and diversity.

No matter what our food choices are, we can all be grateful for innovation.

Value of food

Weekends are a special time for me. On weekends life slows down enough that I have time to be creative with food. During the week my main priority is ensuring that my family’s nutritional needs are being met, generally with quick and easy meals. But on weekends, I take great pleasure in cooking at least one special meal for my family, where I take time to plan and source the freshest of ingredients. For me, the meal becomes the centre-point of my day. Often my children will help me with the preparation and the process itself is just as important as the finished product. It all culminates in a wonderful sharing of food, conversation, love and sense of togetherness and belonging.

Today’s special meal will be home made pasta served with slow braised pork belly. I have browned the pork, sauted seasonal vegetables and now it is gently simmering on the stove top in a flavoursome broth of red wine and stock. As the dish gradually develops its rich flavours and the meat slowly tenderises, I take time to reflect on my own personal food values and what it is I look for when I go shopping.

20130713_130740-1Primarily, the food I buy has to taste good. If I have an unpleasant eating experience, I will tend not to repurchase. Secondly, it has to fit within my food budget.I do allow extra money to spend on quality produce, but I have to make sure that I have enough money left over to pay all the other bills. I am sure these are qualities shared by most.

I also take great pleasure in sourcing local produce where possible. There are a range of reasons why this is important to me. I have a much greater sense of connection to food that is produced locally, because I can see the fruit hanging on the trees or the animals grazing in the paddocks and I can relate to what I am eating. Further, by buying local I know that I am supporting local businesses, infrastructure and people, which in turn contributes to a much more vibrant and healthy society for my family to live in. It also helps to secure our future. I also can’t see the sense in growing food locally and sending it half way around the world only to import the same product to serve our own needs. What a waste of energy!

I embrace the concept of seasonality, enjoying the variation of food between seasons and savouring the diversity of flavours and dishes. I love the hearty, rich dishes dishes in winter that lend themselves to winter vegetables and look forward in anticipation to the delightful array of fresh fruits and salads in summer time. Sometimes going without something for a while makes it that much more special.

If buying local isn’t possible, I like to ensure it is at least made and grown in Australia. I have a much greater sense of trust in food that is Australian and on a macro scale, it feels worthwhile to support the broader community in which I live.

However, I also understand that not everyone shares the same food values that I do. For some people, affordability is key. For others, access to a key ingredient at any time of the year, whether or not in season locally, is a great thing. Many people just want to ensure that their food needs are met in the most convenient, affordable way possible. Some will not eat meat, choose organic options or have specific dietary restrictions. That doesn’t make their values any less worthy than mine. In fact, that contributes to the rich diversity of our culture and who we are.

In our society, we are incredibly lucky to have so much choice and consistent access to high quality food, to the point that our food supply is more often than not taken for granted. I take great pleasure in sharing information about where our food comes from, because I would like consumers to continue to be able to make choices about their food based on a real understanding, not just heresay. I feel that it is important that collectively we continue to recognise the diversity in people’s requirements and ensure that our food choices are not taken away from us.

As consumers, we don’t want to allow these choices be taken away from us by large suppliers who want to dictate market terms. As suppliers, we want to ensure we continue to meet all the different market needs.

This certainly is food for further thought as I start preparing the pasta. What are your food values? What drives your decisions when making purchases?

20130713_161933 20130713_180010….. and by the way, the meal was worth the wait and loved by everyone!

The humble elite

It was beautiful, clear winter’s day. Deep blue skies and golden rays of sunshine a rare treat for mid-winter in the Adelaide Hills. A perfect day to be outside working in the orchard; getting those much needed winter jobs done before the next rain front moved in.

One could excuse the room full of apple growers for being restless and impatient, for wanting to be outside getting on with their work, for thinking of the countless things that needed doing while the weather was kind. But this was not the case. There was a calm air of expectation. Thirty five of South Australia’s leading growers gathered together to listen and learn.

The presenter was from northern Italy, talking about a new way of mechanised pruning and tree training. A method that would require growers to change and adjust. The audience was captivated, listening carefully to every word, questioning and demanding to know more, analysing how this technique may be applied to their own orchards. They were not fearful of change; rather embracing the opportunity to view their own practices from a different view point. A planned 20 minute presentation turned into a 90 minute conversation and could easily have gone for longer. Probing questions delved deep to the heart of the topic with a clear desire to discover the key learnings.

The session moved on to a case study of one of the leading growers in the district. His performance in the season just gone was world’s best. He openly shared with the group how he achieved these results and how he still felt he could do better again. He was humble, not boastful. Considered and meticulous in his approach and almost embarrassed of the attention.

As we moved out into the orchard to see his best performing blocks, it became obvious that the other growers were not jealous or resentful of his success. Rather, they were proud of his success and were eager to learn from him. This was no group of slouches either. This was a group of very successful apple growers in their own right, all at the top of their game, but all seeking constant improvement.

I stood back from the group and observed the interactions. The orchard owner demonstrated his pruning techniques and it was masterful to watch. His cuts were fast and precise, with hundreds of considerations made in a split second. The group followed his movements closely, anticipating every cut. Occasionally he would pause to think and the group would provide input, engaging in gentle yet clearly passionate discussion around the subtle nuances of the task at hand.

It was very apparent that I was in the company of a highly professional, skilled group of people. There were no big egos, just an overwhelming passion for what they do and a deep desire to constantly improve and learn; to stay ahead of their game. I was struck by their unassuming manner, with no individual thinking that what he or she was doing was anything special. In their minds, what they do is just what they do and no more.

It was a humbling yet inspiring moment for me. Perhaps it is time we put some of these amazing food producers on a pedestal in the same way that we do with the other great professions. I am certainly grateful for the amazing job they do and feel blessed that I get to work with them every day.IMG_3346