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Third generation smart farming standards to lead the way toward resilient production

We catch up with Kenneth Irons, New Zealand’s representative on the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) global Strategic Advisory Group on Smart Farming (ISO SAG-SF), helping to shape tomorrow’s farming practice.

A seedling and graphic showing factors related to smart farming

With the work of the SAG now complete and a 170-page report submitted, Kenneth explains why the third generation of smart farming is the next big thing in agriculture. As the former Chairman of Agritech New Zealand, Kenneth has contributed a decade of experience in sensor-originated decision-making and execution as chair of the ISO subgroup on climate-relevant agricultural data.

At the forefront of global change

‘Smart farming uses automated systems and remote access to real-time facts rather than rear-view mirror manual records. It is focused on looking for better decisions tomorrow rather than typing records into a website about what was done yesterday.’

With agriculture so important here and agritech so widely employed, New Zealand was invited by ISO to be a participant on the development of smart farming standards. With 23 other participating countries we now have equal and direct influence over international standards development that can influence the growth of this key sector.

‘Through the SAG, ISO relies on a global pool of subject matter experts to develop the roadmap and content that will lead to new standards. With one convenor from Germany, another from the US and a core group of 30 representatives from across the world, fortnightly meetings needed to move around the time zones by six hours – so all country delegates took turns at the 2am slot.’

Introducing third generation smart farming

‘Generations’ of farming in this context refers to ‘phases’ rather than generational families of farmers. It reflects the evolving integration of technologies and expanding environmental consideration for farming over the last few decades.

‘When ISO anticipates the imminent arrival of revolutionary change, that being the emergence of transformative external forces, they form a SAG. It’s indicative of how standards have the power to influence change, and here they recognise that modern-day agricultural technology is moving to the third generation.

‘First generation precision farming emerged more than four decades ago. Examples include GPS guidance for tractors and variable rate fertiliser application and is considered “paddock scale”. Its matching farm management system is known as a Farming Management Record System as it is about the past, so quite limited as you don't learn anything more than you already knew.

‘For more than two decades, second generation digital farming has been delivering real-time data from sensors and devices distributed across the farm, for example soil moisture and temperature sensors, milk vat monitors, and early crop disease detection technologies. This provides support across the whole farm so operates at “property scale” and in the present, so enables farmers and growers to know something they didn't know. Information platforms can aggregate these data into Farm Management Information Systems.

‘Third generation smart farming builds on the former two generations, and because it is standards-based, it supports solutions to farmers’ decades-old problem of lack of interoperability. New technologies being developed in this new generation help farmers and growers to manage livestock and crops in many improved ways, especially in the complex context of climate change. So this generation operates at "planet scale", recognising how the farm exists within a macro-environment and everything the farmer does can have a negative or positive impact on the environment – for example, negative effects from tractor emissions and positive impacts through carbon sequestration. Farm management tools in this era are Farm Management Decision Systems, and use advanced technologies such as spatial analytics to complement farmers’ experience and expertise to make better decisions, so are focused on the short, medium and long-term future.’

Narrowing a massive scope

During original scoping the committee came up with around 300 different elements that needed to be considered within smart farming standards. This somewhat unwieldy scope was made manageable by dividing the work into nine subgroups: livestock, cropping, controlled environment farming, machinery, semantics, climate, social aspects, data and supply chain. Kenneth chaired the Data Subgroup made up of 28 international experts.

‘With multiple viewpoints and ways to apply scenarios we used a case study or story approach to determine actors, activities, events, artifacts, systems and goals. For example, a farmer (actor) wants to treat a disease (activity) before harvest (event) with the right fungicide (artifact) using a self-propelled spray rig (system) to improve yield (goal). This approach meant hundreds of examples of activities on farms and orchards, feed lots, glasshouses, big ranches and smallholder properties in developing nations, could be systemised, analysed and prepared for Business Process Mapping to facilitate standards-based digitisation.’

Data-informed decision-making

‘Smart farming aims to provide farmers with the why before the how. Informed and connected data-driven farming can be more profitable, more productive and more sustainable, and can reduce regulatory burden. Bankers are more disposed to lend when farmers and growers are making evidence-based decisions, leading to improved profit and loss statements and stronger balance sheets.

‘Using a third generation Farm Management Decision System, as they become available commercially, makes decision making easier for farmers, even though these systems may have analysed huge volumes of data, from pasture and crop growth data, to live weight gain stats, commodity pricing forecasts, and climate modelling.

‘A farmer could also run scenarios in such a system and see the outcomes and implications of making a range of decisions. Bringing standardisation into the mix solves many problems of unclear or inconsistent data.’

Next steps – standards development

‘From here, ISO will form a technical committee (TC) to develop the recommended standards over the next couple of years. The SAG is like the architect, whereas the TC is like the quantity surveyor coming in before building. The SAG identified some 165 gaps in current standards so the priorities to be addressed are clear.

‘Future participation means we as a country can have first-mover advantage, helping support the profitable, sustainable growth of that multibillion-dollar contribution to New Zealand’s GDP. And benefits can derive not only to our domestic primary sector. Third generation agritech innovations developed in New Zealand and proven across our 45,000 farms can scale and grow. We can export our expertise to world markets, not only to the 70 million large-scale farms that exist in the world, but also to the 470 million smallholder farms across the planet that produce 30% of the world’s food.’