E45 Andrew Whitlock (Theme: getting agtech ready)

Andrew Whitlock is a farmer who’s spent his career helping farmers to adopt science-based, practical, precision agriculture solutions. An Agricultural Science (hons) student from Melbourne University, Andrew was formerly the Victorian Department of Primary Industry's Precision Agriculture Agronomist and was awarded Young Agronomist of the Year in 2006. With a deep seeded love of farming, Andrew has many insights into how farmers make decisions about technology adoption and getting agtech ready.

In this episode, Andrew shares these insights as well as lessons from his journey from agronomist to farmer and finally to Founder and Director of Precision Agriculture Pty Ltd.

This episode is the fourth and final in the Getting Agtech Ready theme. This theme is brought to you in partnership with Decipher.

Look for agtech that fits into your farming system

Often producers are overwhelmed by choice when it comes to agtech products. Andrew says it’s important to look for innovation that fits into your farming system rather than the other way around. This requires a strong understanding of your workflows, key business drivers, and decision making processes.
Practical questions for producers to ask themselves include:

  • How will adopting this new technology influence my overall system?
  • How will this new technology be managed?

Andrew has been heavily involved in the adoption of raised bed technology and controlled traffic farming. The implementation of raised bed farming has seen enormous benefits, such as doubling yield through the management of surface area. There have also been follow on benefits for producers who have gone on the journey to make this change in paddock configuration. For example, many of them have implemented a controlled traffic farming system. Others have made improvements to better manage water retention and stubble cover, or have implemented new crop rotations. Andrew explains that both the initial and follow-on benefits were enabled because producers adopted technologies and changed practices with consideration for how the changes would impact their whole farming system.  

Identify your constraints

Andrew suggests that, no matter how powerful the technology, you cannot address everything all at once. Instead, keep it simple by first identifying your constraints.

At a high level, this requires knowing if you’re focused on maximizing yields or cutting costs. You can then begin to identify the limiting factors, and after that, look to solutions, which may or may not involve tech. Andrew has seen answers be as simple as changing the direction you drive the tractor!  

Another key place to look is soil health. Soil health drives productivity, so identifying the constraints that are preventing good soil health is a good place to start.

Here, Andrew references Liebig's Law of the Minimum, which basically states that you have to find the one input (often, a nutrient) that’s limiting growth, and then develop strategies to overcome this constraint.

“What’s the problem then what's the priority, get that in the right order and you’re away”

Wade through the noise by sticking to the science

With new agtech solutions popping up left and right, processing the huge amount of data available to farmers can feel like drinking from a fire hydrant. However, Andrew cautions that big data does not mean good data. His advice is to trust in the science, and not to go throwing away years of research and proven success in favor of new tech.

The imagery space (e.g., yield maps) are a good example. Pretty pictures may be fun to look at, and may even give a retrospective report card for each paddock, but they are not always helpful in identifying strategies for future improvements. Andrew says it is very easy to get bogged down in the data, but fail to regularly find useful insights.

Instead, Andrew advocates for practical solutions that are grounded in sound science, and that can be implemented easily. This ‘crawl before you walk’ approach can help farmers gain confidence to continue to invest in agtech.

“People very easily get sucked into the hype of agtech. Adopting simple strategies can help them cut through the noise.”

Be brave and be keen to learn

Andrew’s experience is that age and stage are no longer constraints to adoption. He has innovative clients that range from older farmers reaching the end of their farming career, to young farmers returning to the business with big ideas for innovation and change.

But no matter who you are, getting started with agtech can feel daunting. It’s easy to fear looking silly, getting stuck, or making a mistake that could cost time and/or money. One key to taking the first step is surrounding yourself with like-minded producers. By creating a strong network and being willing to lean in to change, Andrew says there is plenty of opportunity for success.

“It’s not a matter of burying your head in the sand and saying that isn’t for me.”

Andrew also advocates for keeping informed, for example by seeking out opportunities to build on your skills. By engaging with farmer discussion groups, participating in field days, listening to podcasts, and attending conferences, producers can find ways to connect with like-minded innovators and learn about the solutions that are- and aren’t- working. This exposure and mindset can help you gain confidence that what you’re planning to implement is going to work.

Know your providers

Trust is a two way street, and it’s absolutely critical to trust your agtech provider before getting started with agtech. Seeking out qualities in your agtech providers and advisors such as humility can help you build strong, lasting relationships. It’s also important to know that your agtech providers will be there to support you.

Looking for advisors and tech providers that take a hands-on and deliberate approach, and who want to invest time into understanding your farming business, is important.This might mean sitting at the coffee table and figuring out the problems together. Or it might mean providing useful, practical information that makes sense and won't overwhelm.

“It's an honor to come into a farming business and meet their whole family and get to know their children. It’s not just a business, it’s a whole other experience”

This episode is part of the “Getting Agtech Ready” theme, brought to you in partnership with Decipher, an easy-to-use precision agriculture solution helping growers and agronomists in 60 countries make data driven decisions. To learn more about Decipher, visit their website or follow them on twitter.

To help other producers get value from agtech, we interviewed five innovative farmers (including Andrew!) on their journey with agtech and captured their tips for getting agtech ready.

Download the ‘Getting AgTech Ready’ eBook

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