As a mother of a 16 year old, whose identity is very much aligned with our family grazing business, I look for opportunities to broaden his knowledge about agriculture.
This year EvokeAG 2020 was chosen as the excursion away from the farm for my son, Rob, to step out of his comfort zone to learn new things.
The event was held in Melbourne and, as I enjoyed stopping to admire Melbourne’s historical buildings, Rob could be heard saying “I wonder what Dad is doing back home”.
That was until we boarded the old tram.
As I looked out the window continuing to admire the city buildings, Rob moved seats twice to secure the best position to watch the driver. His focus was on finding out how you drive a tram.
With that sorted we headed to the venue.
EvokeAG wants to be altogether different
EvokeAG is a professional production marketing a positive message about collaboration among agricultural stakeholders. It is future focused and is there for Agtech startups to showcase and pitch their ideas and products to investors, and for the industry to discuss global trends.
Attendees from the previous year were back with stories of opportunities that were created at the inaugural event. The vibe was very positive.
It is a fantastic initiative for agriculture to challenge thinking and consider how ag can prepare for the future, by looking at consumer trends, international market information and research findings.
As beef producers, we look to innovative practices to help drive efficiencies and secure future market opportunities like water monitoring and carbon farming. We recognise alternative proteins as a food source of the future. We are interested in consumer trends and how we can adapt our operations to ensure we continue to achieve premium returns for our product.
I expected to hear from Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) with a showcase and update on how our levies are being invested in Agtech for the benefit of the red- meat sector into the future. Genetics, robotics, machinery, software, data analysis and drones are improving efficiencies in existing practices. Automation on farms is reducing human labour and chemical costs. I was keen for Rob to learn more.
But they weren’t there.
I also wanted to walk away with an insight into poultry, horticulture, farming and other sectors in our industry. Those industry bodies were also absent.
So what was there?
Focus on the future
Encouragement for the future generation is delivered via the EvokeAG Future Young Leaders program. The future will not happen without passionate people to drive change. Some presentations shared stories, others were about ideas and some spoke of their personal achievements to date. Callan Daley, from the 2019 EvokeAG Future Young Leaders cohort, opened Day 1 urging everyone to embrace the digital age of ag.
As a mum, I was hoping the largest Agtech event in the Asia Pacific region would inspire my son and broaden his knowledge of our industry. The theme “food, farm, future” is impressive and the desire to create a unique event with a modern twist is encouraging. In our business technology is embraced when it can economically solve a problem, work in with existing practices and add value. Its uptake is driven by the younger generation.
Agtech represents the application of technology, in particular software and hardware, in agriculture. It’s role is to enhance, create efficiencies, add value and excite. It relies on accessing data from farmers and graziers. It requires collaboration and offers Australia immense opportunities to not only improve practices in Australia, but export Agtech products and expertise to the world.
That’s an exciting thought.
Agtech is more than alternative proteins
As a grazier and mother, I was disappointed that Rob heard more about alternative proteins than he did about how Agtech is supporting the red-meat industry to respond to the changing environment. I felt the spotlight could have also been shared with other sectors. I was pleased to hear Jack Cowin, from Hungry Jacks, remind the audience that although they have a non- meat burger, his business needs 30,000 tonnes of beef a year. Additionally, as the standard of living in Asia improves, so too will their demand for beef.
Panel sessions, which attracted a large percentage of producers, seemed to summarise industry issues, as opposed to discussing producer- driven content. Although producers seemed to be the ones asking the hard-hitting questions, I don’t think they would have all walked away satisfied with the answers provided.
I was pleased to hear current president of the National Farmers’ Federation Fiona Simson’s comment that Agtech innovations must go back to the grassroots level and ensure they are solving a problem and unlocking value for producers.
Innovation has been the cornerstone of agricultural survival in Australia. Technology is embraced when it solves a problem and is considered a sound economical investment. As a producer, I felt I was there to observe the conversation about Agtech in Australia, as opposed to engage and provide commentary.
Primary producers do get to attend EvokeAG at a discounted price. However, as many producers self-fund to attend these events , plus cover the cost of travel and accommodation, I think it’s understandable we reflect from a perspective of “what’s in it for me?”.
I know the focus is on the future, but given the challenges of recent years I was interested to learn what innovative practices have emerged in response to those challenges. The future can learn from the past. Agriculture relies on people, and those at the grassroots level have been doing it tough. Despite the challenges however, innovation and Agtech have driven change and I would have enjoyed a celebration of Agtech impacts to date.
Listening to Australian actor Damon Gameau share his thoughts on what 2040 would look like if we embraced the best solutions available to us got Rob’s attention. Damon says his “fact-based, dreaming approach” is an attempt to address the current paralysis and challenge the negative narrative currently in play. In terms of solutions, Damon’s criteria is based on everything having to exist now and be scalable. He is wanting to motivate by sharing stories. Damon believes the people, stories and things need to be discussed in a solution’s focused narrative.
Benefits for the industry
The international thought-leader lineup was excellent.
Mike Lee, from Alpha Food Labs and The Future Market, had great insights into current food trends and how our food system could transform in the next 25 years.
I was fascinated to hear that Millennials spend more on food then they do on clothing as it is seen as an extension or reflection of their identity.
Mike had the best quote of the conference – “flavour starts with farmers” – and that got me thinking…
Why aren’t these great catchphrases being used to promote agriculture?
Thoughts for the future
EvokeAG is not meant to be just a standalone event, but an evolving conversation. Key content is summarised and generously shared through social media and podcasts. While I felt I was not the target market for the live event, the thought leaders were well chosen for their future focus and insights, and should be accessed by all industry stakeholders. I am grateful there is an opportunity for those who don’t attend in person to access their content. It is worth making the time to listen.
EvokeAG is a sell- out event, so adding other options to access the information shared will not harm the live show. It would be good to be able to live stream the main plenary sessions. I would buy tickets.
Once again it was disappointing to hear how young people are leaving farms and not wanting to return. In the context of the presentation it was to highlight how Agtech can change that. But it also reminded me how there is a greater focus on bringing bright minds into ag and less on doing things for those who, at a young age, want to be a farmer or grazier, like Rob.
Rob enjoyed being able to visit Startup Alley, play with the animal-tracking ear tags and compare farm-mapping technologies to what we currently use. The drawcard for him was to see what value Agtech could offer our business and it reminded me that the conversations must indeed be collaborative to ensure uptake of the end products.
Behind the main plenary stage was the most impressive screen system. It certainly made an impact.
The more I sat in front of the screen over the two days however, I wondered why innovative agricultural stories weren’t being shared on it. Producers are regularly told to share stories in celebration of their achievements. I think these are the very events that should be leading the way and guiding the narrative. Then, after the conference those same stories could be shared at other events and even in city movie theatres.
It would certainly align with EvokeAG’s theme of collaborative thinking to change the future.