Further south in Nelson, Hop grower Cam Ealam is using technology to optimise the use of nutrients to his crops.
Ealam has installed moisture meters in the hop garden which record the moisture content and temperature of the soil and also help monitor nutrient levels in the soil.
“We can actually monitor or track when to put fertilizer applications on, and track how the plants are taking up nutrients,” he says. “Alongside this you can see where there have been high rainfall events, and where there is leaching.
“That is a valuable tool in terms of timings of fertiliser applications, insuring appropriate amounts are being put on and the plants are utilising what you apply.”
It’s easy to see how better targeting of inputs can give the same or even greater level of production with fewer inputs but Robson-Williams says there is even greater potential beyond traditional precision farming with sensing and sorting technology and machine vision.
“Instead of harvesting all the kiwifruit or apples and putting them all in one bin and then subsequently sorting and grading them we asked if there were smarter ways we could sort and grade them on the orchard,” he says.
“This could help growers and pack houses prioritise the cooling and management of the top quality fruit that have just been harvested.”
The fast growing tech sector, which is now the third largest and fastest growing export sector, worth over $NZ6.3 billion in 2015 and employing 5 per cent of the NZ workforce, is increasingly finding solutions to global problems.
Robotics Plus is developing innovative orchard robotics and Compac has developed world leading technology in sensing and sorting technology for the packhouse.
Engineer Craig Piggott’s GPS solar-powered cow collar Halter can self-herd cows, send data about their behaviour, emotions and health to a farmer’s phone and also keep them away from waterways.
Halter could completely do away with the need for fences.
Robson-Williams thinks New Zealand could do better to support and nurture home-grown Kiwi innovation to solve some problems.
“The NZ agtech sector is a complicated ecosystem of start-ups along with small and larger companies doing some neat stuff but often somewhat in isolation,” he says.
“The Precision Agriculture Association is doing what it can to promote on-farm uptake but my sense is that might be a stronger role for government here to support collaboration, exchange of ideas and coordination.”
The opportunity to support agtech to improve New Zealand’s agriculture sector appears clear; how to do that, less so.
Briar McCormack in NZ editor at bluenotes