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.

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

From palynology to farming

Today I visited an inspiring family in the small region of Cudlee Creek, nestled within the heart of the Adelaide Hills.

It was a stunning winter’s day, with crisp, clear blue skies highlighting the last of the yellow leaves hanging onto the fruit trees, contrasting with the deep green grass on the steep hills surrounding the fertile valleys of their orchard. As I drove along a muddy track past the stone walls and cold stores to the old farm house, I felt an immediate sense of history. Which is really no surprise, as the Hannafords are fifth generation apple growers, who first settled in South Australia in the 1830’s.

I met with Carey, who together with her husband Matt and two young boys, despite the long family history of farming, only took up farming seven years ago. I wanted to hear Carey’s story of how she has embraced the farming lifestyle and how she and Matt are now now passionate about growing high quality, premium apples.

We settled into our comfortable lounge chairs looking out over the orchard and cradling a warming cup of tea, with the children happily playing in the background, Carey shared with me their story.

Matt’s father had retired from the farm some years ago and after it being leased out for several years, it had gradually declined. Matt was a qualified mechanic working long hours for little pay and Carey was a successful geologist/palynologist, working in a highly specialised field in the oil and gas industry, using fossils, pollen and microplankton to age rocks and map  oil fields. They decided that it was time for them to make a life change and take on the farm.

Carey said “we both felt we’re coming back no matter what; we couldn’t bear to see it sold after all these generations, so decided to keep it going. But the great thing was, we came onto the farm by choice.”

The farm itself consists of 11 hectares of intensive apple orchard and approximately 100 hectares of grazing land and forest. It is one of the last surviving orchards within the Cudlee Creek area, which was once a thriving orchard district.

Like many apple growing families, Carey and Matt still draw in an off-farm income, with Carey working part time as a palynologist. This has enabled them to invest heavily in the much-needed upgrading of the orchard and still have a steady income to pay the household bills.

I am instantly struck by their passionate desire to make improvements. Between them when they took on the farm they set down a five year plan to turn things around. Carey said “we thought when we came back into the farm we would be happy if we could earn one wage from the farm to begin with. What we found that if we had to live off that wage we couldn’t re-invest in the business. Things have changed so much in the last 15 years that we had to make a huge investment in new trellising systems and so on. We wanted to be able to invest up front and get as much upgraded as we could in one go. We wanted to make a real go of it. There was a lot of things that needed changing. The cold rooms needed upgrading. Some of the older trees were nearly 100 years old. So that was why I kept working off-farm.”

“Every year we marked aside big things to invest in. Some of those investments have paid off within the first year but other upgrades were a big expense, such as the cold rooms and replanting orchard. So now we have a new five year plan, and have made a few more changes as well.”

When Carey is not peering down microscopes or looking after her young children, she is out helping Matt in the orchard. Carey said “there are jobs that often require two people, where I try and help out. We are trying to minimise the amount of paid labour to keep costs down. I have still got to learn how to do a lot of things. During picking season I was able to drive the forklift. One of the big things was that I could do was dip the fruit and keep an eye on the kids at the same time, and next year once they are both at school I will be able to help out shifting bins around, although I need a bit more practice with the back forks!”

Carey is obviously excited about her life on the orchard. She shared “I enjoy the lifestyle on the orchard – I just can’t imagine going back to living in the city and working 9 to 5 now.”

“We have changed so much to the orchard. We have invested so much money and time into the orchard. It has been an exciting challenge converting to the new ways of growing and try and improve yields and get the size and quality right. It is a great challenge to try and see if we can make it work.”

“Trying to juggle all the issues such as minimising labour costs and maximising output with the land and water we have available is a rewarding challenge. Seeing if we can use advances in technology and better knowledge of growing techniques to see if we can be competitive. It is interesting puzzling over those things, and despite the tough times you do get the rewards as well.”

We take a pause as the children come in to share their excitement over a great story they had invented, I reflected that I was in the presence of an extremely intelligent woman who is highly skilled in her off-farm work, but who also pours her heart and soul into the farm. The children wander off again to their magical world of imagination and Carey continues.

“The other big positive is the lifestyle for the kids growing up here. Out here there are so many fun things and really, really good learnings – I love the way they can just go outside and play in so much room, and the way they have learned so much about the environment and farming, just from being with us.”

“Also working for yourself. It would be really hard to go back to working a 9-5 job. Having the freedom to control what you want to do. That is one thing that Matt is really enjoying too. Coming back here, he is just loving it, because he is in control of what he wants to do. He has ideas of how he wants to change things and he can try it.”

As we wander outside to enjoy some rare winter sunshine in this beautiful part of the world, Carey shares with me “I’m excited to see where the Australian apple industry will go in the future. There have been massive changes in the last 10 years. I would like to think that we can be leaders in a high quality, “greener” product, trustworthy for quality. I think we can really do that well. There is a demand for fruit that is safe and healthy and there is opportunity to capture that market. Apples aren’t going to go away, there will just be different challenges and because of the different wage situations and living costs here, the main way we can succeed is through the better use of technology. Like how Germany has managed to thrive. I think we will still be here in twenty years!”.

As I load my children back into the car and negotiate my way back up the muddy track, taking in the beautiful surroundings, I can’t help but think that with families like the Hannafords, our food future is indeed in safe hands!

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