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25 February, 2021

Artificial intelligence 'the future of machinery' says John Deere boss

AUSTRALIAN farmers are both technology leaders – and the toughest operators of farm machinery in the world.

John Deere Australia New Zealand CEO Luke Chandler told the Rural Press Club in Brisbane that agriculture and its machinery is changing at its fastest pace ever.

The Australian agriculture graduate from University of New England and most recently the c chief economist of John Deere in Moline, Illinois HQ offered a unique perspective of Australian agriculture.

‘A lot of agtech was developed by innovative Australian farmers – GPS use by cotton and grain farmers in northern NSW, round bale cotton harvesters in Australia, I-grade land levelling technology – all now used around the world.

“What is coming with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is taking agriculture and machinery to new levels.

‘Global agriculture is at an inflexion point. Traditionally the aim has been to build bigger, stronger and faster machinery.

‘That’s changing to more automated, more precise, easier to use machinery with more technology to allow more productivity.

“From managing crop productivity from paddock size to row by row and even plant by plant, there’s even greater productivity.

“We’ve bought into technology companies to add to our machinery so farmers are the most profitable and sustainable.”

He gave the example of spraying equipment that can now detect weeds and only spray them, reducing herbicide use by up to 80 percent.

But such technology required communication infrastructure and an ecosystem of knowledge.

While John Deere had driverless tractors for 15 years, until communication on farm (by mobile or satellite) improved, farmers were not able to use some of these technologies.

Some of the new equipment had a million lines of computer code – challenging to develop, but also requiring more highly skilled technicians to service.

“That’s why we and our dealers have a program to employ and train 1200 apprentices, right up to speed in the new IT technology as well as the traditional mechanical skills.

“And it is why we allow farmers to access our systems with the right to repair themselves, but we don’t allow the right to modify.

“We can’t at this moment allow farmers to modify the technology, especially for monitoring, because it may compromise safety as well as have environmental implications.”

Asked whether this would prevent the traditional Aussie farmer tinkering to improve productivity, Chandler said this may be the case but John Deere was willing to work with farmers on whatever good ideas they could offer.

“The John Deere engineers would always tell me that if machinery could stand up to Australian conditions, the heat, dust and very high workloads, then it could last anywhere in the world.

“But the huge rate of change in technology and the communications issues in Australia will provide challenges over the next decade.”

Chandler listed the major threats to Australian agriculture as 1/ china (“how to navigate China as Australia’s largest customer is a big risk”) and 2/ Covid (“it’s a challenge in our manufacturing plants in Covid rampant USA, as well as how it might change trade and consumer patterns”).

But overall he was upbeat about Australian agriculture given it was so innovative – and currently was generally enjoying some good seasons.

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