With more than 60,000 kilometres of coastline, Australia has some of the strictest and most comprehensive biosecurity practices in the world.
When you arrive in Australia, say at Sydney International Airport, you will be greeted to routine inspections and are required to make statutory declarations of what you are carrying and where you have been.
An inconvenience yes, but the ramifications of pest and disease outbreaks can be catastrophic for Australia.
What many people do not realise though, that even once you arrive in Australia, there are specific exclusion zones across the continent, that prevents the movement of targeted pests and diseases.
Once such pest is the fruit fly, or specifically the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Queensland fruit fly that together, threaten a substantial portion of Australia’s AUD 9-billion-dollar horticultural industry.
One of the very first jobs I had when I left high school thirty-five years ago, was to go fruit picking on a pear and stone fruit orchard near Shepparton in regional Victoria. I remember the farmer, Mr Burns, explaining to me of the problem of fruit fly!
Now this was also the time when I embarked on my “first career” as an agricultural scientist – where traditional farming methods was typically using chemical controls. In fact, it was the beginning of what we called “no till or conservation farming” in which the use of broad spectrum chemicals such as glyphosate (i.e. Monsanto’s Roundup) was applied to kill “weeds” reducing the need for the farmer to plough their fields keeping more organic matter in the soil structure.
But it was also a time when a different type of farmer, or land custodian, started to be heard. These voices were often ridiculed by the so called agricultural scientists (like myself) because they challenged the accepted norms, but slowly people did start to pay attention to.
One of these voices for many years has been Lynton Greenwood of Greenwood Orchards at Merrigum in Victoria. Lynton is the current custodian of the orchard founded by his grandfather back in 1906 – 109 years ago!
Under the guidance of Alex Podolinksy who championed Rudolf Steiner’s approach of a more environmentally stable agricultural method known as Bio-Dynamic, Greenwood Orchard became “Demeter” certified back in 1968. In other words, they have been producing certified organic produce for almost 50 years – long before organic was trendy!
This fact alone is a great story of business sustainability across three family generations and showing industry leadership despite what your neighbours may be saying.
But let’s get back to the main story and this is about where the problem of fruit fly control and organic farming collides.
In case you missed it, you cannot control fruit fly with artificial chemicals on organic farms. But I hear you say that Greenwoods Orchard is in the centre of a fruit fly prone area and when there is a threat of an infestation, you need to act fast so what do you do then?
Furthermore, complicating this, is the fact that fruit flies are tiny and they are highly mobile! So up until recently, when the fruit fly population started to increase, it was not recognised until they reached endemic levels.
Enter technology, smartphones, and community!
With the support from tech savvy partners like Advance Computing who are based at Kyabram, just down the road from Lynton’s orchard, the idea came about to develop a smartphone app which people could record fruit fly infestations. Then linking this up with the local hardware stores who provided fruit fly traps, the whole community (even supported by the local Rotary Club) could get involved recording fruit fly capture including number, time and GPS location data as well.
Then coupled with the support of another partner – a small company called “Microsoft”, Advance Computing was then able to build a solution around the Azure cloud infrastructure.
As a result, real time data of fruit fly populations across a broader geographical area are now captured via the “crowd” and be accessed immediately with decisions now made at the most optimal times. This means ultimately having the potential to save millions of dollars of damaged produce each year.
While the complete eradication of the fruit fly pest would be a desirable objective, this collaboration between the 109 year old Greenwood Orchards, the local technology partner – Advance Computing, and the local community, has from a holistic point of view, significantly enhanced the control of fruit fly infestations – and that has to be a good thing.
Imagine this… the Nutty Professor announces their latest invention – a robot that sits on your shoulders and feeds you tomatoes while you run in marathons!
Well actually you do not have to imagine it too much, because it has already been invented!
Let me introduce you to Tomatan and of course little brother / sister Petit-Tomatan!
You see the Japanese company Kagome came up with this idea for an automated tomato dispenser for a runner in the Tokyo Marathon in 2015. Perhaps a marketing stunt – who knows, but there we have it, wearable robots!
When Microsoft Australia invited me to visit the Kagome tomato operations located in the Goulburn River irrigation district of regional Australia, as part of my role as a Microsoft Brand Ambassador, nothing was going to keep me away… I wanted to face off with Tomatan because it might be my secret weapon for this year’s Sydney City To Surf marathon!
So, on a mild late summer day, I boarded my flight from Sydney to Melbourne, then took a three-hour bus ride to Echuca.
Everything was set for this show down… man versus machine – bring it on!
But what happened next was a little unexpected…
I met up with Nick Raleigh, Field Operations General Manager at Kagome and Bryant Alford who heads up Software Development at Advance Computing. They then took me on a tour of the Kagome plant and explained how they had been automating a largely manual paper based process, to real time data.
They discussed how they can provide some of the highest standards of quality in food production, with traceability of product (freshly harvested tomatoes) from farm paddock to finished processed, fit for market, goods.
As Nick explained to me:
“By leveraging the capabilities of the Internet Of Things (IoT) and Microsoft’s Azure functionality, we have streamlined production to such a point, that any additional efficiencies would be just incremental as we are close to, if not at the peak, of our efficiency curve in the whole process”
Now that is impressive what every you think, because their supply chain covers independent growers, harvesting, transporting and processing.
But I am being distracted by also thinking:
“Where was Tomatan in all this, will I get my face off?”
Have to focus…
So back to Kagome and the plant, this means a competitive product. For the local growers, employees and businesses of their area, a commercial and viable industry, in which their local tomatoes are being distributed all over the world.
But also for me, it showed how by being very strategic and leveraging the best technology solutions that is appropriate, and collaborating with the right people, can lead to scalability – because this whole production ecosystem is based on a tight period. Tomatoes are a seasonal product so you need to scale up rapidly and then as circumstances change like weather conditions, you need to scale down just as rapidly. In traditional operations, this is not always achievable.
Bryant put it to me this way:
“You have to be efficient and that means making the best decisions at the best possible times and of course this is achieved through information because this is a beast we have to keep feeding”
That’s when it occurred to me…
What Kagome with their partnership of Advance Computing and Microsoft Australia, had actually created was a Godzilla like big brother to Tomatan – a huge robot factory that was actually feeding the world with tomatoes… now that is really impressive!
According to some sources, the ten most valuable commodities traded today are Cotton, Wheat, Corn, Sugar, Silver, Gold, Brent Oil, Gold, Natural Gas, Coffee and Crude Oil.
These commodities feed us, clothe us, allow us to make things, to transport us and to conduct commerce all over the world.
But in my opinion there is one commodity that is traded today that is the “big daddy” of all commodities. Not from the value of its trading, but the impact and what it means, in fact for all us, all of life…
Panhi, Maji, Vatten, Wasser, Agua or Water!
Yes water, the stuff that falls from the sky and melts from glaciers high up in the mountains like in the Himalayas.
The stuff that as children, we run outside to play in, or as adults we hide from!
That phenomenon that arrives as monsoons in which communities celebrate with thousand-year-old rituals.
That phenomenon of drought, that when there is no water, can lead to uprisings like in Syria today, or the complete destruction of civilisations as historians believe occurred at Machu Picchu in Peru, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
For most of us though, we take water for granted. We live in communities where it is generally abundant in supply.
However, if our whole sense of existence revolved around water, it is likely we would start to look at it very differently.
When I started my career, it was in agricultural science, in which has taken me around the world including the vast and ancient irrigation schemes along the Indus River in Pakistan, where I worked with Asian Development Bank funded projects, to ensure the effective supply of water to local Pakistani farmers to grow food.
So, it was with much enthusiasm, I accepted a recent invitation from Microsoft Australia, in my position as a Brand Ambassador, to visit regional Australia where Microsoft and their partner Advance Computing, is supporting the Kyabram based Waterpool Co-op to transform themselves for the digital age!
You see, the Waterpool Co-op was founded by a group of local farmers back in 2012 to provide a transparent trading platform for water users. Now five years later, they have transformed themselves digitally, or as Peter Lawford, Chairman or the Waterpool Co-op explained to me:
“Think of Waterpool like the stock exchange of water. You can visit our trading room and website to find out more about how water is trading, or if you are ready to trade, then you can sign up and trade with us 24×7”
Now you can imagine to be able to a provide 24×7 service you need to have significant automation and real time data connectivity in place, instead of manual processes and paper! So what Advance Computing did was to provide a Microsoft Azure cloud based solution for the Waterpool Co-Op which has now completely transformed the way farmers and irrigators are managing their businesses.
Tim Humphris a local dairy farmer and Waterpool Co-op member has found that the approach to locking in prices immediately for water as soon as new information comes to hand, has saved him a lot of money. In fact, has given him some degree of comfort as he is more in control.
Waterpool’s transformation in my opinion though, is only just starting…
There is much more to what can be possible now that they have the Azure platform in place. In the future they will be able to do some exciting things for their members like keeping tab on micro weather information, satellite mapping and farm usage records to provide production data – all of which can include historical and predictive data! All of which will lead to better decision making by the farmers and irrigators.
So while the rest of the world are trading all sorts of commodities, spare a thought to what is the most valuable commodity that we all have a stake in, and what the Waterpool Co-op are doing to ensure that this scare resource is being managed as efficiently as possible.
We hear so much about digital disruption these days. How it is impacting us in our jobs and the opportunities people are making because of it.
We see footage of these great co-working spaces created out of old factories and warehouses where coffee and beer is on tap 24×7. Where people get around on roadster bikes and there are walls to write on and cushions to kick back on!
But guess what? That is only a small part of the story when it comes to digital disruption.
There are countless other stories of the quiet achievers chipping away and making a huge impact in their own communities.
One of these quiet achievers is Advance Computing who’s head office is based in the regional Australian town of Kyabram – check them out here on google maps so you get an idea where they are:
As part of my relationship as a brand ambassador for Microsoft, I had an opportunity to travel to Kyabram and meet the team at Advance Computing and learn about how they are punching above their weight.
To set the scene, Kyabram, which is 200 kilometres north of Melbourne, is possibly not the first place most people would think of, when it comes to digital disruption. But actually, it is positioned right in the heart of the Goulburn River irrigation district in the Shire of Campaspe.
I had a chance to meet up with Councillor Leigh Wilson of the Shire of Campaspe who shared with me that the council is responsible for over 36,000 residents across 4,500 square kilometres (Greater London for example is only 1,569 square kilometres!) and is a source of diverse agriculture as well as a solid manufacturing and services base.
So, I guess it is really no surprise after all, to see how the need for digital transformation was there across this diversity of businesses, local establishments, and community.
Established in 1999, Advance Computing has filled this gap by providing IT services that range from software development and support through to even a local retail outlet for computers where farmers walk in and just say:
“fix it – I will be back in the morning”!
As Managing Director Mark Schumman explained to me about the products they had developed for financial services:
“you do not have to be based in the cities to deliver compelling offerings”!
They also recognised the need to build local capability which for them meant supporting the schools and providing entry positions into Advance Computing – a legacy of this success is with one of their senior leaders, Bryant Alford, responsible now for Software Development, who started as one of their first trainees!
But of course, it is the clients that tell the story of how Advance Computing is making a huge impact.
This is where Chris Motton, Services & Sales Director, took me on a tour across the Shire to meet three of their current clients – Waterpool Co-op, Kagome and Greenwood Orchards. All very diverse businesses and also with very different challenges in which technology was to play a key part of the solution.
This just emphasised to me how important it is in any business that you need to be flexible in your own service offering if you are to be able to deliver great outcomes for your clients.
But the other thing I was impressed with was the level of support Microsoft was giving to regional Australia to support businesses like Advance Computing (who is a Microsoft Gold Midmarket Solution Provider). Steven Miller, SMB Director at Microsoft Australia explained it this way to me:
“digital disruption is everywhere – it is not just in the cities, no one person can claim ownership”
The days of the one size fits all is over.
If you want to leverage global digital disruption. If you want to set up, scale and sustain a business today then bespoke services and sustainable relationships are key.
Developing unique and innovative solutions to solve problems must be an imperative and this is best achieved when working in collaboration – not going at it alone.
What the team at Advance Computing is demonstrating is precisely this, and it was very inspiring for me to see this first hand and through the eyes of their clients.