Episode 2: Innovation & Decision Making: How do you implement change, without betting the farm?

Vic Drought Hub - Farmland 1

Kirsten Diprose (00:00):

We acknowledge the traditional owners of country throughout Victoria and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters, and culture. We pay our respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging.

Cam Nicholson (00:18):

Agriculture's the riskiest game in town. There's very good reason why we tend to be a little bit risk averse in some of this sort of stuff.

Jacob Birch (00:24):

Making decisions that have integrity and are authentic and giving back and contributing to this bigger vision.

Emma Ayliffe (00:32):

We want to be able to break down the barriers and give people the opportunity to really discuss what's going on and make sure that what's happening in the research world is matching what we need in the farming world.

Kirsten Diprose (00:45):

You're listening to Innovation Ag. I'm Kirsten Diprose. In the last episode, we looked at what innovation actually is. In this episode, we're looking at what I'd call step one of the innovation process, and that's making a decision. Brought to you by the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub. We go well beyond our state confines, looking at innovation across Australia and the world because innovation knows no bounds.


I think sometimes we downplay the decision-making process involved in innovation, but all too often people can get stuck on this step, paralysed by the fear of making the wrong decision. And I get it. A bad decision could mean a failed crop or a lot of wasted time. This episode, we'll hear three different but very useful perspectives on how to make a good decision. We look at where to find the right information, what values or considerations we need to think about, and how to assess whether that shiny new opportunity really is as good as the salesperson says it is. Sounds like we need a risk matrix. Stay with me on this one. I don't mean some HR template where innovation all too often goes to die. I'm talking about a decision-making process which has been developed by farmers for farmers.

Cam Nicholson (02:16):

A lot of people when they would like to get somewhere but see that it's quite a significant change that's required that sometimes it could be a bit daunting.

Kirsten Diprose (02:25):

That's Cam Nicholson. He's a farm consultant and farmer based in southwest Victoria. He's also a member of Southern Farming Systems, which is a local farming group.

Cam Nicholson (02:35):

I've got some clients that are happy to jump in boots and all and take that risk, but for the majority of people I think it's more, "Okay, I need to make that change. Let's do some research, and let's understand how we could incrementally make those changes."

Kirsten Diprose (02:48):

How important is understanding the money side of things? I think that can be a big barrier. If you're wanting to make a change, you're probably doing it to increase productivity, but sometimes there's no guarantees.

Cam Nicholson (03:02):

Agriculture's the riskiest game in town. There's very good reason why we tend to be a little bit risk averse in some of this sort of stuff because quite often we're playing with big amounts of money, and there are lots of risks involved. One is about the cash flow of it. Do you actually have enough money there to do it? Again, it sort of comes back to the risk side of it, understanding the risk and being comfortable with the level of risk you want to take on.


I've seen people take some what you might consider to be pretty big investments or dealing with a lot of money but tend to do it and they're comfortable with doing it if they've researched it well and they understand the potential losses if it does go wrong and we try and put things in place that minimise the chances of that going wrong, if that makes sense, so that idea of let's not punt at all when we don't actually understand what might happen. Let's spend a bit more time, do a bit of research or potentially do it, as I said, in steps or in stages can sometimes be a more... well, it makes you more comfortable when you've got to make a decision to say, "Will I do it or not?"

Kirsten Diprose (04:04):

I think agriculture is in a really exciting time and a period of change. I know a lot of farmers are getting contacted by ag tech companies or people, carbon farming people. There are great opportunities, but how do you know it is an opportunity and not a distraction?

Cam Nicholson (04:23):

That's a really good question. It's very easy to get distracted because I can tell you no one who's trying to sell a product or a concept or an idea is going to tell you about the downsides. So you're always going to hear about, "Oh, this is a great opportunity." I see it in ag tech all the time. "Look at what it can do. Look at what it can do." But when I say to them, "How is that information going to help you make a better decision about X or Y that we need to make," quite often it becomes a distraction. It's noise rather than actually being helpful.


I tend to find with the people I work with, if we're very clear about what decision do we need to make and what are the critical things we need to think about in making that decision, then we can go and try and find the tech or the information or the product that is going to help us do that. We tend to be swept up in what tech can offer without thinking beforehand, but hang on, what decision is it that I really need to make or what change do I really need to make in my business?

Kirsten Diprose (05:21):

Carbon farming is another one where the market for carbon now is probably going to be very different to what it is in 10 years. We don't know what it is going to be in 10 years though. How can we ride that wave of innovation and be at the best point along that wave without chasing a unicorn?

Cam Nicholson (05:41):

Two things there. First one is that people will be different in their tolerance to risk or appetite to risk. I'm quite comfortable that some people just want to see other people go before them and in a sense iron out some of the bugs or fall into some of the traps before they jump in. I think the carbon farming one is a classic. There are lots of fantastic promises around the carbon farming. Some of the science may challenge the extent or the size of those possible opportunities. So you need to have a fair bit of faith in what you're doing. I'll use that word deliberately. It is faith because in a lot of cases we're not as clear as we'd like to be on what works and what doesn't work.


There are a lot of people promising stuff, and there are some examples that you see every now and again. The more conservative people will look at that and go, "Hang on, I want to see that repeated 10 times." So I'm not too concerned that some people want to sit back. For those that are willing to have a bit of a punt, then again, I'd say, do your research, understand what you're actually risking, and then make sure you're comfortable that if that doesn't go right, that you don't regret it forever.


I just think of some of the examples of the very early adopters of soil carbon up in Queensland that signed up for ACCUs and then did their five-year measurement. Because they'd gone through three years of drought, they didn't achieve anywhere near what they were hoping they would've got in those five years. So there was a lot of disappointment there and a lot of people, some of them quite angry about, "We were told we would get such and such." You were taking a punt on relatively new technology, and you've got to be prepared for the downside I think as well as potentially capitalising on that wave or that upside that you spoke about.


In my mind, good decision-making does both. You understand what that opportunity might be, but you also understand, if it doesn't work out, what regret will I have? If you still think I can live with that regret and I can go forward, "Yep, took a punt, didn't work out," then it's probably a good decision to have a go. But if you're going to beat yourself up over it, "Oh, I never should have made that choice," then a good decision is just to hold back.

Kirsten Diprose (07:58):

Cam has helped to create the Decision Wizard, which definitely sounds better than risk matrix. It is a bit of wizardry because it turns all of those thoughts swirling around in your head into key considerations with a decision value score.

Cam Nicholson (08:17):

The matrix that you are referring to is really for what I call complex decisions, and by complex decisions, there's a number of things that you need to weigh up. The process I go through is be clear on the decision we're trying to make. Then we go through a step of identifying what I call the critical factors. They come from what I describe as the head, heart, and gut of decision-making, and we just make a list of those. What are the critical things if I need to make this decision that should come into my thinking? Then take each of those critical factors. I get the person to describe what would be the most favourable description you could give for that critical factor. In other words, if it was around price, you'd say, "Well, if the price was in the top 10% that it's ever been," and then I'd say, "What would be the worst possible result?" If it was in the lowest 20% of where it's ever been. Because if it was in the top 10%, I'd think differently about my decision that if it was in the bottom 20%.


So we go through and we split up those critical factors into tipping points. Then for each of those tipping points, we then give a value or a score because each of those critical factors, they may not all be of equal importance. So the last step that we go through is then putting weightings on some of those. So things like seasonal forecast may be a more important critical factor than the amount of feed you've currently got on offer. So if we were making a decision about restocking, it might be price, it might be how much feed you've got, it might be the condition of the animals, it might be what the seasonal forecast is and so on. What's really struck me about using it, this has sort of evolved, is that a lot of people say to me, "I've never actually been taught how to make a decision." In fact, the best farmers that I've ever worked with, the ones that have that freaky ability to make good decisions at the right time more often than others actually follow this type of a process. They just don't know it.

Kirsten Diprose (10:08):

I think there's research indicating that older farmers tend to make more successful decisions than younger farmers. That's probably that wisdom, and part of wisdom is that ability to make good decisions. I guess that's part of being young as well is making a couple mistakes.

Cam Nicholson (10:28):

When I mentioned the head, heart, gut part of the decision-making, that intuition, that experience is part of the gut side of it. As you've gone through and you've had experiences over time, you start to learn about the risks associated with them, the things you did right, the things you did wrong. What I like about the decision matrix or the decision framework is it allows you to put that into the mix. Your experience, your intuition goes into the mix of the steps that we use.


I started off many years ago in the consulting game and I thought it was all about the head. It was all about the facts and figures and the numbers. It used to frustrate me sometimes that what I thought was a perfectly rational and logical investment decision the farmer would be reluctant to do. You'd come back six months later, and they hadn't done it, or they'd only half done it. It's because there were other things at play. There are other critical factors that they had in their minds that I didn't know about, so I was only really looking at it from one dimension. I was only looking at it from the head point of view, the numbers. This is a return on investment you'll make if you do this or that, where they were looking at it, from the head, the heart, and the gut, their preferences, their values, their past experience, those sort of things.

Kirsten Diprose (11:41):

Making a decision also comes back to the type of person you are. Are you a radical innovator, early adopter type, or more of a slow and steady innovator? Or maybe you're not really an innovator at all. Maybe you will be after the end of this podcast.

Cam Nicholson (11:58):

I'd probably call the jump-in-quick the pioneer type people. Because of their personality or their temperament, they tend to see the big picture. They see the end point very clearly: "I want to get to this. I need to solve this problem." So they're willing to jump in fairly quickly without necessarily doing all the research. So this group don't have to have all the answers before they start. They find the answers as they go through. They either invent them themselves, they speak to other clever people, and they formulate ideas to take it forward themselves. You see this in a lot of ag innovation, whether it's chaff carts for weed control. There are examples of where some farmers have really pioneered sort of stuff.


The second group, and as you said, they're probably the majority of farmers, tend to like to know that it's going to work before they'll start considering adopting it. They like to see examples, particularly local examples, so what I call a trust local. It's one thing to say, "Oh, it works in New South Wales, but I'm in the high rainfall zone of Victoria and, oh no, we're different. My farm's different. The climate's different. Therefore, that may not work." When they can see in their district, over the fence, when they can talk to other farmers that are trying to do it and they can get it to work, that is a very strong driver of adoption.


The second one, and I'll mention this, is that components, all that incremental steps to be able to adopt it. So instead of having to put all your chips in, you could say, "No, I'll just spend a few chips, see how that goes, see if I can make it work." You get that one right, and you get comfortable with that. Then you take the next step, and then you take the next step and so on. I certainly saw that in southwest Victoria 20, 30 years ago when cropping came in and displaced a fair bit of livestock. In those early days, the agronomy was really fundamental, really basic. The pioneer innovators made real mistakes, and we rushed into, everybody had to have raised beds everywhere, so there were raised beds put all across the countryside. Don't see many of those now. I bet you people will be thinking about them this year because the amount of rain.

Kirsten Diprose (13:59):

We've got them. You're telling our story with those sheep-cum-croppers in the southwest, yeah, plenty of raised beds here.

Cam Nicholson (14:07):

So everything was raised beds. Then, oh, we don't need raised beds, and agronomic practises got better and some people really flew ahead with that. Other people wanted to watch to see whether it worked or not. Some of those pioneering types made mistakes, spent lots of money, blew lots of money, but also made some big gains and developed some really good technologies that now we look at as common practise, minimum till being one of them.

Kirsten Diprose (14:29):

That's what I was going to say, minimum till. It's amazing to think that, well, around here, maybe 10 or so years ago that wasn't done, and now it's the common practise.

Cam Nicholson (14:37):

Yeah, exactly right. We will still encounter problems some years with slugs and things like that, wet years, and too much stubble mass and all that sort of stuff. But on the whole, industry's moved forward. The majority of people have adopted, but it's taken a few pioneers. I know one fellow who was very heavily involved in the early development of this. He'd probably spent a lot of money on probably three different machines before he actually got something that worked right. But he could see where he wanted to go. He could see that that's where we have to be somewhere. "I know that we need a better system for this. We can't keep ploughing all the time. We can't keep burning all the time. We need a better system. It didn't exist at the time, but I think this might work." Now history is we're all doing it, and it's a successful practise.

Kirsten Diprose (15:22):

Of course, while it's good to know what kind of innovator you are on a personal level, most of us, whether we're in a farming family, an ag business or rural community, aren't making decisions alone. So what happens if you're all slow and steady but your counterpart is boots all in?

Cam Nicholson (15:39):

There's often tension. In fact, I do some lecturing at Marcus Oldham with farm management students this year. I mentioned this in passing. We ended up spending an hour probably on it because a lot of them are enthusiastic by the end finishing their studies and want to make big changes. I sort of challenged about how do you introduce new ideas, which might be a bit more the pioneering, into what may be considered to be a established business.


If you're a pioneer and you want to change something in a business that's run by people that are more conservative, break down your big picture idea into those smaller components. As I say to some of the students, just see if you can go home and get a paddock or two to do it or just do some strips or hire a bit of machinery to try such and such rather than wanting to spend half a million bucks going out and buying one tomorrow and doing it in that small incremental step, observing it, allowing other people to see it. Because again, that comes back to that trust local and it's not such a huge commitment.


I did some work in our consulting business with a few other colleagues. We did a bit of a study of dairy farmers that had adopted robotic dairies because there was a real mixed experience of those that had jumped into robotic dairies and how successful they were with them and getting them to operate. It really bore out to me that all these people that were jumping in were the pioneer, the big picture sort of people. They were recognising that labour was going to be an issue with dairy and milking. There are occupational and health and safety issues with the level of milking that people are doing, shoulders and all that sort of stuff. The technology somehow had to have some good ideas in it that were going to help us be more efficient in the business.


As I said, some of them were really successful, and some of them it was just an absolute disaster. When we teased it out, it tended to be that while there was always a big picture person that could see the advantage of the robotics, if a big picture person had some detail people in their team who sorted out all of the finer things before they actually implemented, the implementation was much smoother and much more successful.


I remember interviewing one farmer and he said, "I feel like I'm in a prison. It's all technology now. When the machine starts beeping at me, I'm not a computer expert, I don't know how to solve it. If have to ring up the people, they're over in Europe, so usually I'm ringing them at midnight, which is their daytime hours to do this. They're trying to explain to me how I need to reset the system." Another farmer that said, "I didn't realise how much I loved actually getting the cows in and out." Because the robotic system now, the gates are open and things like that, you don't actually interact with the cows. They just come and go as they want to.


One fellow spent four years over in Europe working in those sheds, so he knew exactly what to do. Another farmer resowed his whole farm all to the same pasture type because he'd learned that, and other people had found this as well, that some pastures the cows like better than others. Because you weren't pushing the cows in, it was all automatic, they just walked in and out. If there was a paddock they didn't like going to, even if the gate was open, they'd just stand in the laneway because they didn't like that pasture. So the farmer that had sown the whole farm down to the same pasture, the cows learn very quickly: "It doesn't matter what paddock I go into, it's all the same," so they'd go in.


Now, there are little detailed things that actually make a very big complex change work. It was the ones that didn't do that. One farmer who realised the technology was really important got the local computer guy in town and paid for him to be trained up to understand the dairy stuff. So whenever anything went wrong, he just rang the local fellow in town. The local fellow in town came out and fixed it instead of having to be on a phone overseas in the middle of the night.


Now, that's what I call the detail bits, the component bits that make a complex bit of technology work. The successful ones had both in their businesses. They had someone that could see the vision, but they then had the clever people that slotted in and put all those little pieces in place that made the transition much better. With the dairy people that I worked with, then they actually set up a system called "Are you robotic dairy ready?" It was almost like a checklist: Have you checked this? Have you thought of this? So that comment you made before about when you go home on the farm and people have got different ideas, if you can actually blend them, both of them make valuable contributions. It's understanding how the detail person can temper the big picture person and hopefully put those chocks in behind the big picture person that's tearing off, driving down the hill really, really quickly. You just want to slow them back a bit and make sure that all of those bits are in place, that it's going to work on the way through.

Kirsten Diprose (20:09):

I think you've just described my marriage there. I'm not the big picture person. I'm the one putting roadblocks.

Cam Nicholson (20:17):

But if the roadblocks are constructive to stop you... "Hang on, the road's washed out down there. I think we better stop for a bit until we fix it or until we put something else in place." For a lot of innovation, we get caught up in hype and enthusiasm.


I can give you another quick example. This is happening at the moment because we've had a few wet summers in a row. I see this real interest in this real push for cover cropping and you what you can grow over summer and using summer moisture and all that sort of stuff. I remember a cycle about 20 years ago when we did this. The first two years was fabulous. Then three years after that, we had really dry summers, and it failed every year. So over a five-year period, there was only two years it was successful. I heard someone stand up and talk about the two successful years. I just asked a question, I said, "You've been doing this for five years. What happened to the other three years?" Now, in my mind, if I know there's a 40% chance of it working and a 60% chance of it not, I would rather know that before I make a decision.


That's what I keep saying sometimes we only talk about the good bits. If we want to be really honest in the industry, we've got to say there's a chance that it'll work this often. So that's about the risk side of it. How repeatable is this? How robust is it? Under a whole range of circumstances, does it still work? What's the value proposition? What's the marketing angle? What are all the positives we can talk about?


If I go back to that dairy example, everyone said to us when you watched the video and you spoke to the salespeople, you thought, "This is magic. Why on earth isn't everybody doing it?" A lot of them were really cranky, saying, "They should have told us this other stuff." They're the innovators, and they're the innovators who have been burnt and had some horror trips. Some of them just gave up completely and went back to the old system. One fellow said, "Couple of million dollars by the time that swapped it all around." Others eventually made it work, but said it was the hardest two or three years of their lives and the least satisfying of their farming careers because I think we weren't necessarily honest with them. Being honest with them doesn't mean that it slows down innovation. I think of anything it does the reverse because people know what they're getting in for. "I don't mind being told this could go wrong. All right, I know that, but I'm still going to take a punt, then that's my choice, it's my decision, and I have less regret than if someone hadn't told me."

Kirsten Diprose (22:45):

What Cam is really talking about there is trust, and it's so important when making a decision. Look, trust is important in farming in general, which relies more on good faith and handshakes probably more than other industries. Meet Emma Ayliffe. She's building an ag innovation of her own, which runs on the currency of farmer trust. Her upbringing on a farm and career as an agronomist led her to create a communication app called Yacker.

Emma Ayliffe (23:18):

We would more often than not put our growers in contact with other growers that we worked with or people in our network that could help answer their questions. So we thought, "Well, is there a better way to do this?" When you think about connection, a lot of guys, particularly in the ag industry, will talk about Twitter. But the trouble with Twitter is you're restricted to 140 characters on an open platform, so the amount of information you can get across in a tweet or written text can be quite limited and it can limit the conversation. If you sent me an email, I would send you a short email back, but we may not be able to delve into the problem or the situation really well. Whereas if you pick up the phone and have a conversation or a chat like we are today, you can delve right in and find out a heap more about it.

Kirsten Diprose (24:05):

We heard Cam talk earlier about the importance of research in making a decision. Now to do this, most farmers are unlikely to jump onto Google Scholar. But ironically, let me just borrow from the academic research on this which generally shows farmers are most likely to get their knowledge from other farmers. The academics call it peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. Farmers call it asking the neighbour. Emma is actively trying to broaden those networks right across Australia.

Emma Ayliffe (24:34):

We thought, can we create a platform where people can ask their questions or pose their thoughts? Then offer them the opportunity to pick the phone up and have a conversation around it with someone maybe from within their industry and district or maybe from the other side of Australia from a completely different industry that can give you a whole new perspective on the problem that you're trying to solve. You can go in, you can pose a question, you can add a picture. If you're trying to identify a weed or a problem or you want to showcase a piece of machinery that you're trying to change or modify, and then people can hit a little call button which then allows them to ring you and have a conversation about it.


It also has an online and offline function, which means, "Now I'm busy. I can't really take a phone call." So I can be offline and people can flag me, which then sends me a little notification to say, "This person wants to talk to you." Then when I come online, it makes me available so people can ring me direct or I can follow up on the people that have flagged me.


The way that we make connection is that when you load your profile, you load your interest and expertise. For me, that'll be things like agronomy, cropping, wheat, barley, canola, cotton. Then if someone else goes on and poses a question, they can then tag what that relates to. So someone asks a question about cotton, they can go, "Righto, I need people within the cotton industry or and interest with cotton to see this." Then that'll flag me and say, "Someone has posed a question about cotton, can you help them?" Then that comes into my notifications, and I can see what they're trying to solve and whether I can help them.


There's a lot of bullshit. Twitter's a classic example. We actually had this feedback from a guy. He goes, "I'd go on Twitter and I'd pose a question about my cattle. Someone will reply to me, and I don't know whether this guy's looking after five cows or 5,000 cows. So how does this relate to my business?" The beauty of being able to pick the phone up and have a conversation and say, "Righto mate, how you operating? What does your business and system look like? Is this actually translatable to what I'm doing?" is a massive win for these guys because it just gives confidence around the advice that you're getting.

Kirsten Diprose (26:40):

While Yacker is still only in a startup phase with about 1,000 users, the feedback shows the app is helping farmers to make some really big changes.

Emma Ayliffe (26:50):

We had a guy east of us here in the Central West. He wanted to grow a new species of pasture for his Merino production system in premier digit grass. He didn't know how to grow it. No one within his advisory group knew how to grow it in their environment and in their situation. So he chucked up on Yacker that he was interested in learning a bit more about the production and how does it operate, how do you graze it? On the back of that, he had four really good conversations, two with farmers from different areas of Australia that had implemented digit grass pasture into their Merino production with great result, and two agronomists that assisted farmers in the production of digit grass.


He last year planted his first crop, and he did amazing. He's gone through and done it again this year with similar results. It's actually to a point now where he's become a poster boy for that seed company because he's had such a great result within his business and was pushing the comfort zone and the envelope. We also had an agronomist reach out from the next district over and share their knowledge and go through the process. They now work together full time. So he's now their agronomist, and within that business helping him make critical decisions on a day-to-day basis, which for that agronomist is a massive win because he's got another client and another relationship that he can lean on. For that grower, it's a massive win because he's got someone with the expertise on that farm helping him progress his business.

Kirsten Diprose (28:24):

The Vic Drought and Innovation Hub actually did some research on the role of farm advisors, so agronomists and bank managers, rural suppliers, and the important role that they play for farmers in terms of making decisions, particularly in drought but just in general. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that farmers have good teams around them? Are you finding this platform useful in that way?

Emma Ayliffe (28:47):

It's a really interesting question, that one, because the demographic or the way that businesses operate is changing. I've seen that in the last 10 years. When I started being an agronomist, you'd get a phone call and you'd wheel into a farm and spend a couple of hours evaluating the situation on that farm and what's going on, making small decision with those growers to help them. Then you might not see them again for six months.


Now what we're seeing is family operations are getting bigger and machinery's getting bigger, the workforce is getting smaller, growers are getting busier, so they rely a lot more on having the team around them to make critical decisions and allow them to operate the business. So there's a number of businesses where basically we are part of the management team, and we work with their resailer to ensure chemical supply. We work with contractors to ensure people are on farm on time. A lot of the time, I've got growers that basically just say, "I'm too busy to check every corner of my paddock every second week to know what's going on and that's what I pay you for." So you do become a really critical part of that business.

Kirsten Diprose (29:58):

Do you think that farmers and perhaps younger farmers or smaller farmers have those connections that they need? Is it hard to get those when you're starting out?

Emma Ayliffe (30:08):

Oh, absolutely, it can be. Agriculture, and I think most of life, it's not what you know, it's who you know, so it's about having that network of people around you. Particularly, we see if you're from a family business and you go straight home to the family business, all you know is what if you know. If you haven't gone to uni and made connections or had a job where you can go and see what other people are doing or kind of explore other options, you tend to go home and just continue with the status quo because that is what you know. So this platform offers an opportunity for these people to meet people that they may not have otherwise and see how they're operating or what services they can offer.


The banking industry alone is really interesting. If you don't have some level of risk, the bank doesn't really want to know about you, which kind of seems counterintuitive. So to be able to make connections with people in a similar situation and understand how they're operating and managing their businesses and how they're structuring debt and stuff like that is a great conversation to be having. I think if we look at banking as a example, there's definitely a massive knowledge gap there in the ag industry. A lot of these guys are operating multi-million dollar businesses, and they're treating them sometimes like a hobby farm, which is a really big concern. To be able to take the taboo out of talking about money and business structure is a massive win.


The same with succession planning. I don't know how many times a month I would talk to people about how the wheels are falling off their succession plan. Everyone's going through the same thing, but no one wants to talk about it publicly. Here's a really great opportunity to be able to post a question and then have a private conversation to learn from each other and try and hopefully take the stigma out of what is quite normal in our industry.

Kirsten Diprose (32:03):

Where do you hope to see Yacker in the next couple of years?

Emma Ayliffe (32:07):

Look, we'd love to see Yacker as a mainstream staple in agriculture, in supporting knowledge growth, in extending research to farmers, in extending the problems from the farmers back to researchers. We see that research quite often is lagging 18 months to two years behind what's happening on the farm. So we want to be able to break down the barriers and give people the opportunity to really discuss what's going on and make sure that what's happening in the research world is matching what we need in the farming world.


Agriculture, whether we want to believe it or not, it is a community business. We're not really competing with the guy next door. We're competing with the guy overseas. If we can get people thinking about that and sharing knowledge rather than keeping knowledge to themselves, that's a massive win. Hopefully, Yacker can help break down the silos between the research bodies, between the farmers, between the suppliers, and help agriculture be seen as one big piece rather than different industries competing for the attention.

Kirsten Diprose (33:17):

Well said, Emma. That's the whole purpose of this podcast, bringing all the elements together that make up agriculture and even drawing on elements well outside the industry. This is key in decision-making because it's a reminder that the best solutions are not always from the usual suspects. Here's Cam Nicholson again.

Cam Nicholson (33:37):

What other industries, what other technologies could potentially help us? Does come from mining or medicine? I heard a story recently on a kill chain at an abattoir that some of the technology that they're using actually came from medical imaging and was then being used and applied really successfully as cutting-edge stuff on the chain. The second one is I think that there has been a disconnect between what I see are some very clever people in universities that maybe haven't had the necessary connection with those pioneering or innovative farmers. Innovative farmers tend to work with other innovative farmers to find solutions, and you've seen that in a lot of the farming groups that evolved over the last 20 or so years. There's opportunity if we can capture those good ideas from the people that need to apply it and then be able to expose some clever minds within and outside agriculture to help us. I think putting those two together will make things better.

Kirsten Diprose (34:43):

Jacob Birch is a Gamilaraay man whose work is certainly an example of bridging the entrepreneurial and academic divide in agriculture.

Jacob Birch (34:52):

Academia doesn't really make that jump from knowledge to implementing it. I identify as Gamilaraay. That's the southwest Queensland, northwest New South Wales Murray community. I identify as a academic/entrepreneur. Work in a couple of academic institutions, Southern Cross University, Griffith University.

Kirsten Diprose (35:13):

Within Griffith University, Jacob is building an enterprise to grow the native grass industry, so he wants to see widespread change of practise across the industry.

Jacob Birch (35:23):

I'm specifically working with ganalay at the moment. That's, I would say, our most culturally significant grass. We have other species like guli and buttongrass, but ganalay is the one that has a great deal of cultural significance. So at the moment trying to build an industry, bring that economy back, but bring it into a modern context, so bringing this ancient economy into a modern sort of time, doing everything from looking at the agronomy of those grasses, building relationships with the people who are growing it, with the communities where it's grown, understanding and say, what's the financial viability of growing these crops? What's the food safety of these crops? So getting them analysed for nutritional qualities plus the anti-nutritional qualities, so make sure we don't have any hidden, nasty sort of compounds in there.


There's a whole bunch of stuff building out the back end of the industry as well, so the demand side of it, working with bakers and chefs to look at what kind of products we could develop from the grain itself. You could use it for whatever you use wheat or barley for. When you mill it, you can smell it's got a really high sugar content in it, so you can smell the maltiness in it. So it might lend itself to, say, something like brewing, but I'm not really interested in brewing it. We've trying to bring back something that hasn't been utilised for over a hundred years. I don't think the first step should be making a beer out of it because grog doesn't have a really good relationship with First Peoples. So I'm looking at bread, which I think is really symbolic. It's accessible for everybody. Every culture has a bread or a flatbread or something. So not something in a high-end restaurant or in an exclusive run of beers. It's something that we can have on every person's kitchen table so that they can enjoy this and celebrate it.

Kirsten Diprose (37:18):

I think Jacob is a great example of a purpose-driven mission. So if we're thinking of Cam's Decision Wizard, Jacob's key considerations go beyond profitability or environmental sustainability.

Jacob Birch (37:30):

It's all about improving productivity by just getting as much biomass growing out of the ground as possible. That's how we measure successes, is output. So this native grain industry is all about changing that idea where you just got to pillage the soil and just get as much out of it as possible.

Kirsten Diprose (37:48):

In terms of output, you're not saying that this would be able to produce as much as a traditional wheat variety, but that's not the point. Is that what you're saying? You're not trying to compare with some of those commodity farmers.

Jacob Birch (38:02):

Yeah, yeah. You want this industry to be about equal weighting between social outcomes and cultural outcomes and environmental outcomes and long-term economic sustainability, so it's not short-term gains, so quadruple bottom line. We're not competing with those big crops either. We're not competing with commodified crops. What I'm saying and where I'm targeting with my work in southwest Queensland is actually going to those blocks of land, those paddocks that, say, somebody's father and their grandfather and great-grandfather, they may have cultivated wheat into that paddock in the last 20 years. Because of the changing weather systems, because of soil degradation, you can't grow wheat in there anymore. So let's put our natives back in there. Let's utilise that degraded land. You're not competing with a really productive agricultural system.


I grew up in Darling Downs. No way I would go out to those farmers and say, "Hey, get rid of your crop of sorghum and put in an native grain." They get two commodity crops every year. That's how productive that is. You wouldn't go there and say, "Get rid of that and put in natives." You go out to the people who have that degraded paddock and you say, "Let's put native grass back in here. Let's add a bit of resilience to your property. Let's diversify your income. In doing that, let's stack a bit of carbon credits on it and some biodiversity credits and all the rest of that stuff."

Kirsten Diprose (39:25):

By thinking beyond the established markets, the often get-big-or-get-out commodity markets type game, Jacob is coming up with entirely new options for agriculture.

Jacob Birch (39:36):

That's sort of how I see it in the early days is because, say, my mob anyway, Gamilaraay, we don't have any land assets, so we're going to have to work with the farmers. So it's not competing with commodities, but it's definitely got the capacity to be a significant industry operating this space, making sure that you're making decisions that have integrity and are authentic and giving back and contributing to this bigger vision. We're making sure also that you're doing things as culturally appropriately as possible within a very Western capitalist system. It's kind of a tricky space to navigate. Sometimes it feels like not many people have really walked that path before. It's hard to find people to model your decision-making upon.

Kirsten Diprose (40:42):

Being culturally appropriate is also very important. While Jacob wants to see the native grain industry dramatically expand, he suggests if you want to get involved, you should consult with local traditional owners.

Jacob Birch (40:55):

I wouldn't be taking it off someone's country and shifting it 2,000 kilometres somewhere else and processing it and then sending it somewhere else. Talk to the local TOs, local community, see how you can work together if you're looking to commercialise it or try to get an economic outcome out of it, I think. There's examples of entities coming out on to country and harvesting knowledge and cultural identity and taking it off country and using that to grow their own brand and to develop these products that don't culturally belong to them, which is fine if you don't have anybody in community who wants to step into that space. But when you're taking that and trying to prevent the people who are in community from actually entering that space, that's a pretty good example of people not doing it the right way.


For me, what I'm looking at doing with this enterprise is having it as like a full-purpose enterprise, so setting aside a decent amount of the profits, say 50% of the profits, and putting that into a trust, which maybe you call the Gamilaraay Nation Building Trust, where you appoint a board of Elders to oversee that trust and to decide where that money should go. For me, that feels like the best practise standard to operate from. If I'm setting up an entity that's going to benefit from my people's culture, the whole thing about it is providing opportunities for employment, opportunities for getting this cultural food back on people's plates, connecting people back to country.

Kirsten Diprose (42:31):

Big plans and big picture thinking. If you want to hear more about Jacob's story, we'll be releasing the extended version of the interview I did with him. It's a fascinating chat where we learn about the native grass industry and learning from the mistakes made in North America when it comes to cultural appropriation and ag.


That's it for Episode 2 of Innovation Ag. I hope you're feeling more prepared to start making some big decisions. This is a 10-part series, and once a month, we'll also release long versions of our best interviews. Our first one will be Jacob. You can find the episode transcript on our website, vicdroughthub.org.au. Thank you for listening. This episode is written and hosted by me, Kirsten Diprose, produced by Rachael Thompson. We have editorial input from scientists, academics, and farming groups involved in the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub. This podcast is funded by the Australian Government's Future Drought Fund. I'll catch you next time.


Innovation Ag podcast Episode 2 Innovation and Decision Making

Making the right decision at the right time is critical to good business and innovation, especially when you add drought or other volatile factors into the mix. So when a new opportunity arises, how do you know you’ll make the ‘right’ choice?

This episode looks at the latest research about on-farm decision-making, as well as stories from farmers, farm consultants and agricultural entrepreneurs about how they made the decision to adopt a new technology or practice.

Farm consultant with Southern Farming Systems, Cam Nicholson shares his decision-making framework of using the ‘head, heart and gut’. Emma Ayliffe, agronomist and founder of Yacker, an app that connects farmers, talks about the value of peer-to-peer research (ie. Calling other farmers!). And Jacob Birch, Gamilaraay man, academic and entrepreneur speaks about how to be culturally appropriate in the decision-making process, especially as the native grains and other indigenous industries grow.




CAM NICHOLSON is a director of Nicon Rural Services, a consulting business near Geelong working with the grazing and cropping industries.

Cam has worked in pasture agronomy and soils for 35 years and has been involved in many farmer programs for the GRDC, MLA, Landcare and the current Future Drought Fund. He provides consultancy advice to farmers and lectures on animal and pasture systems at Marcus Oldham College.

His most recent work has focused on understanding and discussing risk in farming businesses, carbon accounting and decision making. Cam recently helped revamp information and tools for MLA on pastures and soils.


EMMA AYLIFFE is a farmer, researcher and consultant based at Tullibigeal, NSW. After moving from South Australia to New South Wales working as a cotton agronomist, Emma moved to Tullibigeal with her partner where they bought her first 1700 acre farm with the support of Craig’s family.

In 2020-2021, Emma was Australian Young Farmer of the Year. Emma prides herself on being an innovator pushing the boundaries and coming up solutions with farmers problems.


JACOB BIRCH is an academic, entrepreneur and Churchill Fellow passionate about re-awakening, and bringing into a modern context, the native grain foodways that sustained his Gamilaraay ancestors for thousands of generations.

Jacob’s received First Class Honours for a multidisciplinary research project that investigated the nutritional qualities of Australian native grains for human consumption, and Indigenist research methodologies which give agency to First Nations voices and experience.

Jacob led a national consultation to inform the AgriFutures commissioned Australian Native Grains Strategic RD&E Plan.