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Putting humanity at the centre of agtech goals

With a track record for running and re-engineering complex businesses, Mark Allison, Managing Director and CEO of Elders, is widely recognised as one of the thought leaders of Australian agribusiness.

This recognition follows Mark’s distinguished 40-year career in agriculture, including seven CEO roles, numerous Board positions and nearly a decade at the helm of Elders Limited. Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise to learn that a casual conversation between Mark and AgriFutures Australia Managing Director John Harvey back in 2017 led to the genesis of AgriFutures evokeAG. and its first event in 2019.

Fast forward nearly six years, and 1,600 delegates from 18 countries filled the Adelaide Convention Centre for evokeAG. 2023, to connect and collaborate for the future of Australian farming businesses and our global food system.

In this edited extract from his opening remarks at evokeAG. 2023, Mark encouraged everyone involved in agtech to ensure that farmers – and humans in general – are central to their thinking as they consider technology, its application and value.

Mark Allison, MD and CEO, Elders presenting at evokeAG

Elders first began here in 1839 when Alexander Elder arrived in Port Adelaide, carrying cargo to trade. Elders remains a proud South Australian company to this day, with our headquarters still based here 184 years later.

Our roots are here in Adelaide, but since that time, the company has experienced growth far and wide across Australia, now servicing hundreds of farming communities with over 400 points of presence.

I am incredibly proud to be Elders’ leader, carrying on its prestigious legacy and helping to take the company to new heights, alongside our farming clients and communities.

Much has changed since those early days of Elders.

Perhaps the most obvious is the incredible leaps that our sector has made to produce food and fibre for a growing population, in Australia and around the world.

Over a relatively short period, Australian farmers have learned how to harness products, practices and technologies that have sky-rocketed our productivity levels and are cumulatively predicted to deliver another near-record of $85 billion in pre-farm production value this year.

Today, I am here as an advocate for pushing this number further, with the support of my team in the crowd, and throughout Australia.

At this event, I hope to explore, discuss, and collaborate with you on the future of this sector that we are all so passionate about.

I was an agronomist once upon a time in the early days of conservation tillage and precision agriculture and can attest to the leaps and bounds that we have made in terms of technological capabilities. Our aim as a business is to provide our clients and advisors with meaningful outcomes through on-farm monitoring to find solutions to pain points, to save time, improve efficiency and yield, and manage risk.

Mark Allison at evokeAG 2023

At Elders, our goal is to provide our clients and advisors with products that aim to solve an identified industry problem. These products include farm management systems, IoT devices, remote monitoring, satellite, and large-scale paddock mapping.

These technologies are all wonderful, in many ways; they solve problems, enhance capabilities, and help to improve productivity and efficiency; some of our main goals as farmers and as service providers.

But they also have limitations – and I want to make the point that agtech does not solve problems on its own, it can only be a tool in solving them.

Agtech products rely on human application.

With agtech, we often talk about how it enhances what we as humans do, but in fact, in many cases, technology cannot serve its purpose in isolation of human intervention or application or modification.

It is humans who apply the context for agtech to serve its purpose; people, and the people you see in pink shirts in the crowd today, are the crucial link between agtech and its success, and bring technology down to earth to the farm gate.

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Mark Allison, MD and CEO of Elders, Cathy McGowan Chair of AgriFutures Australia and John Harvey Managing Director AgriFutures

Mark Allison, MD and CEO of Elders, Cathy McGowan Chair of AgriFutures Australia and John Harvey Managing Director AgriFutures

They quite literally – bring technology down to earth; to the farm gate, to the soil on which our country produces food that is feeding Australia and the world.

In my view, humans remain key to adopting and applying technology correctly, to enhancing its capabilities with knowledge, experience, and a nuanced understanding of farming systems, of specific crops, of certain pests and problems.

Elders’ essential role is in ensuring the application of technology is fit for purpose, commercially viable, and solving problems on-farm rather than creating new ones.

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These technologies cannot be of maximum value without people maintaining and tending to relationships with farmers and communities, to ensure that these technologies are applicable, relevant and useful.

I’m proud to lead a team who care deeply about the outcomes of their clients and who, I believe, are the key to applying agtech in a way that ensure it reaches its upmost potential.

People are also the crucial feedback line to developers – to say what is and isn’t working, what is solving a problem or exacerbating it.

When I addressed the crowd at the 2020 evokeAG., I urged them to put the farmer at the centre of all thinking and consider the tangible benefits of technology.

This year, I extend this to thinking about humans in general – to bear in mind not just how technology can improve farming operations – although this is key – but the secondary implications for humans and the core fabric of rural and regional communities.

Technology must pass a usefulness test, a social benefit test and a humanity test.

We should ask – how can this idea, technology or practice benefit people? How can it connect them more to each other and to information?  How can it make their lives easier and improve outcomes at large for people in rural and regional communities? How can it help us to harness the conditions we are given and help promote longevity for the agriculture sector?

With a lens on the human implications of technology, I believe we can better withstand any challenge thrown at us as an industry and a community.

Agtech is making our sector more sustainable and more resilient, which is why events like evokeAG. are so important – to encourage us to collaborate and find solutions to our sectors challenges and take advantage of its opportunities – as farmers, and as humans who live, work and eat.

This address was delivered by Mark Allison, Managing Director and CEO of Elders at evokeAG. 2023 in Adelaide on 21-22 February 2023. 

Elders has supported evokeAG. since it’s inception in 2019 as the events Platnium Partner. Learn more about Elders agritech products and services and how the application of agtech can help to increase yields, drive down costs and optimise land and water use here.

Want to hear more about the opportunities for agriculture in Australia? Save the date for evokeAG. 2024 in Perth, Western Australia on 20-21 February 2024. Tickets will go on sale in mid-2023. Sign up here for event updates and fresh stories about global leaders, farmers, startups and innovators driving collaborative change.

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