How a new digital and data strategy for agriculture is helping farmers innovate

Digital leaders at the National Farmers' Federation talks to CMO about the national peak body's digital transformation strategy and how it's helping deliver two-way engagement with Australian farmers

A three-pronged approach to digital transformation encompassing a new online portal, big data services project and technology accelerator are helping to not only innovate but also unify Australia’s agricultural community.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is a not-for-profit advocacy organisation representing Australian farmers and has been around since 1979. The group’s digital ambitions were launched by Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in December, and are expected to help double the value of Australia’s agriculture industry to $100 billion a year by 2030.

The digital work, being undertaken in partnership with Accenture and with the help of industry partners including Vodafone, Coles and the Commonwealth Bank, has three components: A centralised online portal, which launched on 19 July; a data-driven agricultural services offering; and an agriculture technology accelerator program.

The business case for digital disruption

Speaking to CMO during the recent Adobe Symposium in Sydney, the NFF’s general manager for digital and industry partnerships, Charlie Thomas, said the organisation is going through massive structural change as its looks to shift its approach from one-way advocacy for Australia’s farmers, to two-way engagement.

“There is a realisation that sitting around waiting for people to write you a cheque for policy and advocacy isn’t a great business model,” he said.

At the same time, the NFF is in endeavouring to unite with more than 30 member organisations across different states, territories and commodity sectors, as well as partially government-funded research and development groups. The objective is to get to one consolidated entity that serves farmers nationally – no easy task given the heritage, independent charters and operating models of each respective association.

To date, the group has agreed on its new branding and digital offering, Australian Farmers, and several principles that inform how the organisations operate.

“One thing we thought would be helpful would be to start the process with a digital unification,” Thomas said. “Rather than trying to disband the corporate structures, we’d first bring together a consolidated, online presence for these organisations.”

Out of a wider strategy piece of work undertaken with Accenture, the NFF started work on its new online portal, farmers.org.au, which launched on 19 July.

Built on Adobe’s Experience Manager platform and with the help of Accenture subsidiary digital agency, Reactive, the online portal brings together a range of information services such as localised weather data, news and educational information, and all commodity pricing. It also offers a gated online forum designed to build community across the agricultural sector.

“We interviewed hundreds of farmers to identify all the places they were going for information online, the different usage patterns, and what elements we could incorporate into a one-stop shop,” Thomas explained. “For instance, with commodity information: At the moment, if you’re a farmer and want to see the wheat, wool and cattle prices, you have to go to three different websites as the information is not collated. That’s one example of what we’re looking to do.”

An addition incentive driving the digital push is the National Broadband Network (NBN). With the rollout promising to bring high-speed connectivity to most rural communities by 2020, and new satellite services being switched on this year, the NFF now has an opportunity to engage with them digitally and online in new ways.

Thomas noted farmers are technically literate. All of the machines today rely on GPS technology and Google Maps, and farming machines are increasingly driving themselves based on a farmer’s programmed instructions. As business owners, they’re also using accounting software on a daily basis.

“Internet connectivity has been the massive problem. There has been a big call from the farming community for this sort of thing,” he continued. “They’re also getting a lot of their news online now, particularly those with mobile coverage. We haven’t previously had a channel that gave us the ability to contact them.”

The website launched on 19 July. Thomas already has a list of things planned for the next iteration, including integrating a jobs platform to help farmers meet their labour needs, and a marketplace for farm machinery. Online learning is another priority, as well as a focus on commercialising the site to build a revenue stream.

A key metric for success is registration of users. “If we can get 10,000 active users by the end of this year, that’d be great,” Thomas said. “But it is very much putting a finger in the air trying to work out what the metrics should be as it’s not comparable to the existing website.”

The former website was internally focused, lacking capacity for two-way conversation. “We want to use the information we’re getting back from farmers to form our key positions on advocacy issues,” Thomas continued.

“If farmers are having a lively discussion about the best ways to tackle climate change in the forums, we want to be able to look at that and if there’s a lot of support for going down one avenue, test that and flesh out a policy position.”

Content curation has been a challenging component of the new portal, and the NFF has worked to build a pool of third-party contributors to provide information for the site.

“Internally, we have always produced a lot of content – media releases, submissions, newsletters, fact sheets – but changing the tone of voice and having tighter timeframes around that has been challenging,” Thomas commented.

“But the biggest challenge is probably the shift in perception of the nature of what we do as a business. People initially in the business saw this as a tool to do what we already do, which is policy and advocacy. It’s making them understand there’s another step in there; it’s actually a content marketing tool and revenue tool which helps us reinvest into what we do as a core business. Sometimes we’re just going to be in the publishing business there might not be a direct link to your day job. It also helps us build an audience, and we need an audience if we’re going to advocate, and that’s something we’ve done poorly before.”

Communication teams across member organisations also have a login, and Thomas said they’re now having weekly catchups.

“It’s forced that collaboration towards the common purpose of making this thing a success,” he said. “Starting that cultural mind shift within the organisation has been critical.”

Harnessing big data for farming

The second ambitious piece of work for the NFF is a Digital Agriculture Service, which leverages big data collected from farming equipment and in-field sensors, drones, unassisted vehicles, satellites and market information to provide practical production advice to farmers.

As a first step, NFF is piloting a prototype Web-based tool for the cotton industry at next week’s Australian Cotton Conference, and Thomas said projects will be tackled on a commodity by commodity basis. Capabilities include crop emergence tracking and health inspection, farm data tracking and growing degree days monitoring.

“The data is being collected but there’s no consolidated way for farmers to collate and analyse that, and no products to take that extra step of saying ‘based on that data, here are some useful product recommendations and steps you can take today’,” Thomas said. “That’s the idea behind what we’re wanting to create.”

The tools will become products the NFF can sell, and Thomas said the idea is to integrate data insights into the digital portal. This could allow people using the digital agriculture service to receive notifications that drive them into back into that app, he said.

“Longer-term, it’s just mind-blowingly exciting – if you’ve got a range of different commodities on there, providing farmers with news, education, weather, digital agriculture, then we have an immensely powerful source of data we can use not just to mine and build new functionality for the digital agriculture services, but to sell to different providers and commercialise, so more industries benefit,” Thomas said.

Having a unified approach to how data is collated and analysed could also help tackle bigger questions around who actually owns data being produced on farms. For example, Thomas noted a court case in the US between manufacturer, John Deere, and farmer, William T Graham, about who owns data generated and collected through use of a tractor.

“It’s one of the reasons we’re in this space – we see as an industry body that we can have a noble purpose in all of this,” Thomas said. “We are owned by the farmers, so if we’re holding the data, we’re doing it on their behalf. We want to be able to set an industry best practice.”

Meanwhile, the task of structurally bringing the associations together continues, and Thomas said a shared services company for finance, HR and membership database management kicks off from October.

“That is about building belief that this thing can happen, and there are cost efficiencies to be had,” he said, adding total integration is planned for two years’time.

“I say this with the proviso that this is something that’s been attempted five times in its history. When we were established as NFF 30 years ago, it was an interim step before we created this cohesive national body,” Thomas added. “It’s easier said than done, although we’ve never come this far before.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+: google.com/+CmoAu

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