Dial up the Chutzpah, this is the advent of opportunity on the land

Australian farmers are a resilient lot. In a country where climate extremes are fast becoming the norm and floods, fires and drought dominate our national news, the ability of our farmers to just keep going is remarkable. But with the advent of the emerging AgTech industry and the global opportunities it brings the time has come to challenge our “she’ll be right mate” attitude.

I recently took part in an Australian Agri-Food Trade Mission to Israel run by the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce. It was inspiring.

Israel is a tiny country with limited arable land, and limited natural resources. Sixty percent is covered by desert, yet, Israel produces 80 percent of its own food. In the words of former Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, “In Israel, a land lacking in natural resources, we learned to appreciate our greatest national advantage: our minds. Through creativity and innovation, we transformed barren deserts into flourishing fields and pioneered new frontiers in science and technology.

The impetus to do more with less is acute in Israel and this intense focus drives innovative thinkers to the agricultural sector. Successive Israeli governments have underpinned innovation with generous public funding which stimulates a virtuous circle of venture capital, in turn stimulating start-ups to be competitive, disruptive and innovative. By comparison, Australia has a lack of specific AgTech investment funds. Only 0.3 percent of our superannuation funds invest in agriculture.

Australia doesn’t lack good ideas or excellent accompanying research, but there is a disconnect between researchers and start-ups with technology developed in isolation from the farm and the farmer. Our current measures of success are focused on research metrics – papers published and cited – rather than commercial impact on productivity and applied innovation. In Israel, funding and incentives are designed to drive a fast prototyping, safe to fail approach. Australian research is producing quality AgTech and high quality research but collaboration with industry is needed early to drive positive growth and faster commercial outcomes.

AgTech, by its very nature, thrives on collaboration. This is because it needs people whose skills are not traditionally associated with the land; engineers, software designers, data analysts and business support services. This is not to say that Australians are not co-operative, but Israelis pride themselves on the idea they are never more than two degrees removed from each other. The scattering of the Jewish people around the world, rather than breaking this connectivity has escalated it into a global collaboration.

Two words define my experiences in Israel; ‘chutzpah’ and ‘yalla’. The Yiddish word, chutzpah, roughly defined as extreme self-confidence or audacity, is a point of national pride. It represents a willingness to try things out, to hustle for a result, to believe you will succeed. Yalla, an appropriated Arabic term means ‘let’s go’, ‘get moving’. Israel, beset by permanent national security issues, with a heightened perception of the fragility of things, resonates a restless urgency to get things done.

This combination of yalla and chutzpah is tangible and inspirational. All the Trade Mission delegates returned determined to search out innovative ways to green our desert, to develop an urgency of action and a ‘why not’, ‘how might we’ mind set.

There is a farm ownership succession wave about to role across Australia, bringing with it young tech inclined new leaders who can inculcate a new vision for how value can be enhanced for consumers, the environment and very importantly our farmers. It is time to re-imagine how we produce, process and sell food and fibre to reduce risk and maximise the value returned to the farm gate.

I encourage you to read Dial up the Chutzpah. Lessons from Israel for Australian AgTech, a summary of some of the amazing things I learned from my trip, together with thoughts on how these could be applied in Australia.

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