‘The time is now’: Key insights from Elders CEO Mark Allison
Elders CEO Mark Allison addressed evokeAG. 2020 – just a few short weeks before the world went into lockdown – to talk farming trends and Australian agriculture’s target of building a $100 billion industry by 2030. Now, as the world emerges to the ‘new normal’ and ahead of evokeAG. 2022, Mark reflects on the past 18 months and why he’s excited for the future of Australian agriculture.
Learning to adapt and thrive in this rapidly changing world has become a true test of resilience that’s helping set the pace for Australian agriculture.
In February 2020, Elders CEO Mark Allison not only presented at evokeAG. but it was also the last time he travelled to China on business in the midst of a melting pot of both man-made and natural challenges for agriculture.
“Apart from COVID-19, there were some geopolitical issues with China and Australia that were already having implications for agriculture both pre-farm gate and post-farm gate that had been flowing through,” Mark remembered.
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“That was combined with a number of other issues at the same time leading up to evokeAG. in 2020 – there were the bushfires through Southern Australia, as well as the breaking of the 100-year east coast drought, and we’d also set the target of $100 billion of agricultural production pre-farm gate by 2030.
“I think we started at $60b and dropped to $47b during the drought period so there was a need for us to be able to use everything in our power, particularly innovation and agritech initiatives to drive productivity and production and sustainability through to meet that 2030 target.”
Mark said, as the history books will show, the impact of the pandemic on agriculture has been at odds with metropolitan Australia – in an incredibly positive way.
“With the breaking of the drought and lots of new technologies coming through, the industry has bounced back to close to $70b in production,” he explained.
“But I think in some ways the big innovations haven’t actually been the biggest part of the story – the biggest part of the story is all of the pre-work done prior the drought and the pandemic and then being able to take advantage of average and above average seasonal conditions throughout agribusiness.”
Tech, sustainability, and community expectations
Agritech and innovation has been forced to accelerate and adapt in direct response to the dry years, and Mark said the key driver for this has been a reinvigorated understanding of the worth of taking a long-term approach to sustainability.
“We’re seeing technology produced that’s ensuring things like the most efficient and targeted pesticide application, and water management and nutrient applications and the enhancements of genetics to drive greater efficiency with a very strong sustainability lens across land, water and air,” he said.
“We often talk about value adding to Australian agriculture through technology for the world and having niche products, but when the largest proportion of our global commodities are actually commodities, like cereal and beef, the targeting of initiatives and agritech innovation in that respect is focused at reducing cost and increasing quality.
“It’s not so much a niche differentiation but from a sustainability viewpoint, the combination of productivity, profitability and sustainability is where it’s at.”
As the Chairman of Agribusiness Australia, Mark has also been involved in the commissioning of research that’s explored the community expectations around agriculture, agribusiness and its role in a robust economy.
“The research showed that metropolitan communities and regional, rural, agricultural communities have exactly the same view on environment and water and sustainability issues,” he said.
“The fundamental difference in their expectation is around timeline. Where our metropolitan cousins want everything fixed ASAP, our agricultural cousins have skin in the game and therefore want to progress at a rate that allows them financial and commercial practicality.
“As an industry we need to be ahead of community expectations though, and my deep belief as career ag guy from Far North Queensland is that, that is inherent in most agricultural people – that’s how we live and that’s what we are.
“So, I think providing technologies and channels to allow us to have commercial profitability productivity while meeting those expectations and the sustainability that we actually inherently want is quite important.”
Digital infrastructure to lead quantum change
Mark is an industry leader with a ‘glass half full’ type personality. And this is no more obvious when he talks about the positive aspects of the pandemic and his belief in both the immediate and long-term future of Australian agriculture.
“The Australian people – both metropolitan and regional and rural – are primed with two years of lockdowns and fundamental changes in lifestyle through COVID-19 and now are primed for a quantum change,” he said.
“I think a number of the adoption curves whether it be in animal production or whether it be genetics or water monitoring, or pasture monitoring are growing efficiency, there’s emissions reductions through feed additives in intensive animal production and in the crop production area, both intensive horticulture and broadacre – we’re primed for breakthroughs.
“A bit like the online world that we’ve been taught to appreciate in the last two years, I’m thinking with the digital infrastructure advancements in regional and rural Australia, this is a quantum change period.”
Mark said that’s acutely reflected in the generational acceptance of digital technology.
“There’s a common belief that because the average age of Australian farmers is 50 to 61 years old, we’ve got to wait for the next generation to come through to adopt digital enhancements. I’m also the Chair of AuctionsPlus and the training regimes aren’t for people who are 20, 18 and 25 years old – there’s 45, 50 and 60-year old’s being trained up on these online technologies.
“My sense is that the digital environment is like growing a crop when the environment is right; there’s moisture in the soil – as in appetite for adoption, we can put the fertiliser on – which is the agritech innovation – and the sun is shining, so away we go.”
Positive environment to hothouse agricultural innovation
Overall, Mark feels confident that the Elders’ client base and the broader agriculture sector, is in a positive mindset.
“Elders is 182 this year and I always see that Elders’ progress in history has paralleled Australian agriculture’s progress and history,” he explained.
“We’ve got clients that are four or five generation clients and the optimism, and the anticipation is fairly broadly shared. We’re seeing these quantum changes in thought processes that normally take a long time to come to place but it’s really been hothoused by the environment we’ve just been through.
“Two years ago, the prospect of having a massive deficit that we freely partook in to put health above economics would have been a long debate. But Australians did it and we did it quickly and very comfortably. So, the mindset changed, as did the operational environment.
“For Australian agriculture we’ve got a minimum of another 18 months to two to three years of good conditions across the board, and there’s more cash floating around than there has been for a long time over the last couple of seasons, so I think it’s primed nicely.”
With evokeAG. 2022 on the horizon, ‘the time is now’, to connect and collaborate with the agrifood tech community – an opportunity Mark welcomes with confidence, having supported evokeAG. and its vision, since the inaugural event in 2019.
“The challenge now for an event like evokeAG. is bringing forth, from every nook and cranny, the best innovation, unique ideas and technology because the current environment is a positive environment.”