South Australia taps academia to boost dryland farming research
South Australia is pulling out all the stops to accelerate innovation in dryland farming research, as farmers in the world’s driest continent battle with the impact of erratic weather conditions on agriculture yields.
Parts of rural South Australia experienced its driest July ever in 117 years, conditions that continue to worry farmers in the area who expect to face the same drier, warmer weather even in the spring and summer months.
With agriculture being the state’s largest industry, contributing almost AU$20 billion to state coffers and supporting some 152,000 jobs in the 2017/18 financial year, leaving matters up to the weather Gods is no longer an option.
The South Australian government has now struck a major partnership deal with the state’s largest university, through which it aims to boost dryland farming research and cement the state’s position as a global leader in the field.
The partnership will give University of Adelaide scientists access to five state-owned research farms, where they will apply their knowledge in diverse fields such as mathematics, engineering and machine learning for the application of new technologies in the agricultural sector.
Two of the farms will turn into a living laboratory for their exploratory research, and will be used to trial new agritech inventions and encourage early adoption, according to a report in The Lead.
This isn’t the first time the state department Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA) and its research division, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), are working with the university.
But this partnership aims to reduce bureaucracy and red tape, encourage multidisciplinary research and bring academia and industry together to generate the best outcomes and export opportunities. It also aims to increase access to funding and help the relevant bodies leverage international investment opportunities.
The first research partnerships to come from the collaboration include a five-year, multi-partner AU$4.5 million viticulture research project to understand the drivers of terroir in the Barossa Valley, as well as a project to develop herbicide-tolerant faba beans.
Commenting, University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen said the partnership was an opportunity for the state to deepen its expertise in dryland agriculture, particularly in exploring innovating methods.
According to The Lead, one such project already underway is using machine learning to interpret satellite imagery to identify grazing pressures in remote farming areas in real time. The report said this may replace a system that only assesses these regions once in seven years.
Professor Rathjen noted that the university’s Roseworthy and Waite campuses were already global leaders in cereal breeding and genomics, winemaking and viticulture and animal sciences and production.
The partnership would help these campuses continue to build on its reputation, he said.
“But to be globally competitive in the first instance we need to be able to operate at scale.
“We need to be able to assemble cross-disciplinary teams that make available the breadth of skills needed to provide meaningful solutions – not just agriculture but agriculture married with engineering, with artificial intelligence, data science, business, economics, environmental management.
“Scale will also give us the opportunity to bring together more meaningfully the research we do with the training of the next generation … training a generation that will implement the solutions that we discover,” he said.
He noted that many regions around the world from Europe to the Middle East, China and India rely on dryland agriculture to support their consumption needs, presenting a great opportunity for Australian-born inventions.
“So we want to not just produce food for consumption and export, as important as that might be, we want to produce knowledge in sustainable cereal production, water management, dryland farming systems and to do that by bringing to these pressing global problems new technologies and new collaborations,” he said.
“Dryland agriculture can be big for the university and for the state but it will require partnerships and today’s launch is the start of that journey.”