Tim Neale is determined to help Australia’s farmers become more tech-savvy and digitally equipped.
It is a pledge he made back in 2017, when he and his wife Peta created a new agtech company after 20 years in the industry.
“It had all been about big technology, practice and system changes; we had already led the industry through those early years of controlled-traffic farming, GPS auto-steer machinery and variable rate technology,” recalls Mr Neale, who is based in Toowoomba, Queensland.
“Yet national adoption rates were still really bad; just five years ago only four per cent of Australian farmers had ever looked at a satellite image of their property, despite the technology being readily available.
“Slowly we realised the problem wasn’t farmers – they wanted as much data and information about their properties as they could – but that technology had failed the industry.
“There had never been adequate capital investment to make good technology and build proper software; it had all been so clunky, expensive and user-unfriendly that what was available had not been widely adopted.”
Tim and Peta Neale’s new agtech company, DataFarming, is now working to fix that problem, helping farmers and agronomists adopt new digital and precision agriculture technology based on satellite imagery, which is freely available to every farmer in the world.
Their philosophy is to keep agtech simple, effective, low-cost and easy to use, leading to widespread adoption.
“I know people, farmers included, get frustrated with technology. But we can’t go back to a pre-digital era – and why would we want to – when we now can help agronomists make $100,000-plus decisions using simple and effective tools like satellite imagery.
“We’ve got to make agtech work for growers and agronomists – something that is incorporated easily into their daily activities. The more measuring tools, the easier it is to make good decisions – ‘measure to manage’ is the key message here. But decision-support tools have been too complex and we as technology providers need to improve that.”
Mr Neale, who was recognised by his peers as ICT Entrepreneur of the Year (Queensland) in 2019, and Australian Rural Consultant of the Year in 2018, has been helped in his business growth by GRDC and its GrainInnovate venture capital fund, in partnership with Artesian.
In DataFarming’s second year of business (2019), the newly established GrainInnovate fund injected a small sum into the early stage start-up. Follow-up investments have seen the fund further support the fast-growing precision agriculture business.
It is an investment that is already paying dividends for Australia’s grain growers.
Mr Neale says 30 per cent of Australian farmers have now accessed satellite imagery of their farms, making simple maps and increasingly accessing the changing crop and pasture images gathered by satellites that pass over every Australian property every five days, using software such as DataFarming’s to analyse and interpret what is shown.
DataFarming now has 25,000 farmers using its simple-to-use platform, already Australia’s most popular precision agricultural software. The majority are grain growers and mixed wheat-sheep farmers in northern Victoria and New South Wales, ranging from large-scale family businesses and sprawling corporate entities to ‘mum-and dad’ farms with less than 1000 hectares of crops.
Vital to the successful mass adoption of DataFarming’s satellite-based digital decision-making is the ease and speed with which changing satellite images pick up critical in-paddock variations and anomalies, whether linked to crop growth rates, spray drift, irrigation management, waterlogging, soil constraints, differing fertiliser responses or weather events such as frost and hail.
“Every paddock in Australia is different, but they all have up to a massive 300 per cent variability in terms of yield. For a grain grower, that can be the difference between a 4.5-tonne-per-hectare crop and 1.5t/ha one,” Mr Neale says.
“On one property, we saved the farmer 100t of gypsum – four truckloads – because the satellite imagery followed by ground-truthing showed it wasn’t necessary across all of the paddock.
“That’s the problem we are trying to solve – to reduce that large in-paddock variability, increase productivity, grow more food and be more efficient with how, where and when inputs such as water and fertiliser are applied.
“There’s huge cost savings to be made, higher productivity to be achieved and much better environmental outcomes. The satellite data is there on every property, so now it’s all about helping farmers achieve these gains using a simple platform to help connect the dots.”
Mr Neale says the continuous business growth trajectory by DataFarming over the past two years – it now has nine employees, works closely with dozens of external agronomists, helps manage 110,000 paddocks and charges an affordable pay-per-hectare fee – would not have been possible without investment.
“You have to build a business – and a prototype – before people come; there is no way we could have achieved what we have so quickly and reached so many farmers without funding from groups like GrainInnovate.
“The support has been tremendous and (its equity funding) has been business validation for what we are doing at multiple levels. It’s venture capital funding for a start, which carries more weight in the wider investment community than if it was just project funding.
“The investment world doesn’t always understand agriculture either, so the fact that GrainInnovate was the grain industry plus Artesian backing us gave us double credibility when we talked to other investors about matching early stage funding; it meant we attracted patient (long-term) capital which is not always easy to find.
“I also have no hesitation in saying Australian grain growers will also be reaping the benefits of their investment in DataFarming for a long time to come.
“The industry gets back the financial rewards of their trust and financial stake in us, while the growers individually gain the enormous potential benefits of easy adoption of precision agriculture technology on their farms.”