For the first time, Australian farmers have the opportunity to harness major innovation trends to supercharge their productivity and efficiency.

The Government’s $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda in 2015 did not include new funding for agriculture specifically. In response, those in the agricultural space have started looking at alternative funding. The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) launched Sprout – a privately funded innovation hub for agricultural technologies. Sprout will see the NFF partner with superannuation funds and banks to fund agricultural startups and new agri-technology. The hub is looking at various models of financing, including crowd-funding, investors buying shares in an emerging incubator-tested company, or very low-interest loans.

Smart Farming

It is timely that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry has now released its report, Smart Farming, on the inquiry into agricultural innovation (Report). The focus of the inquiry was to examine how the agricultural sector could make the most of the innovation boom in order to support productivity growth and maintain its competiveness. The Report makes 17 key recommendations to the Government with a view to encouraging the adoption of new innovative practices and emerging agricultural technology.

There were a number of welcomed recommendations for legislative and regulatory changes in key areas of agricultural activities. These included agricultural and veterinary chemicals, gene technology and unmanned aerial vehicles; changes which aim to remove barriers to the adoption of new agricultural technologies.

Research & Development

In the agricultural R&D space, the Report acknowledged that the Rural Research and Development for Profit Programme (RRDPP) and Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are key vehicles in harnessing cross-sectoral collaboration and driving the development of new technologies for the benefit of the agricultural sector. The Committee supported “the development of incentives to ensure that CRCs are well resourced”. However, there were no recommendations for increased funding in agricultural R&D as a whole, with the Committee merely recommending that there should be a greater allocation of resources away from rural Research Development Corporations to CRCs.

This approach is consistent with the release of the Federal Government’s budget which cut $9.5 million of funding to the RRDPP. While there were no cuts to CRCs, there is no new funding either.

While the Government has declared its support of innovation in the agricultural sector, some have found the lack of increased funding in key agricultural research programs concerning. As a result, privately funded initiatives, including crowd-funding campaigns and innovation hubs (such as Sprout), may become crucial to allowing Australian farmers to take advantage of the innovation boom and retain their competitive edge over other producers.

Crowd-funding initiatives

We have already seen Australian innovators successfully utilising rewards based crowd-funding in the agricultural space. For example:

  • Flow Hive, a father and son team who created a revolutionary new frame for beehives that allows beekeepers to harvest honey without opening the hive and disturbing the bees. Their goal was to raise $97,000. They raised $16.9 million through the US rewards based platform Indiegogo.
  • Mount Beckford Free Range Farm, a small free-range farming business which successfully raised nearly $45,000 from a reward based crowd-funding campaign on Pozible, allowing them to expand and create an on-site butchery.

It is hoped that equity based crowd funding (which is currently limited to wholesale investors only in Australia) will open up further avenues for funding innovation in the agricultural industry. Sadly, the calling of the Federal Election has resulted in the Corporations Amendment (Crowd-sourced Funding) Bill 2015 (the new legislative regime to facilitate equity based crowd-funding) lapsing. It will now have to be reintroduced when Parliament resumes.

With an eight-week election campaign on our hands, it will soon be revealed what each side of politics has in store for the next phase of the innovation nation. Those within the sector remain hopeful that fresh funding to support agricultural innovation is on the cards.