Separating the signals from the noise

In reflecting upon this year, the Government's legislative programme seems to have dominated many of my articles in The Journal over 2019. Coming to terms with the multiple levels of regulatory change likely to occur on-farm over the next five years represents a significant and daunting challenge for many involved in the farming community.

In this new world, rural professionals will have a pivotal role in supporting and advising their farming clients in navigating a pathway forward to meet the raft of new regulatory changes coming down the pipeline. At the same time, they will need to help clients continue to build profitable and sustainable farm businesses for the future.

Central to this will be rural professionals' ability to use and access vast amounts of information and data more effectively than ever before, so they are best placed to provide high quality advice and services across the farm system, as well as keeping ahead of new environmental regulations, scientific research updates, and innovative practices that improve on-farm performance.

While sounding easy in theory, this is often difficult to achieve when we are consistently being bombarded with information, opinions and scuttlebutt from an ever-increasing and divergent range of sources. More so because even reputable sources of information are increasingly being swayed to meet the cries of public opinion as opposed to upholding good science. The question then becomes how do we source and use high quality information over lower quality information, or (using agricultural idiom) how do we sort out the wheat from the chaff?

The ability to assimilate, filter and use high quality information and data from a range of sources has become an essential core skill for rural professionals in supporting and advising their clients in running successful farm businesses. The development of this skillset will become increasingly valued by a sector bearing the weight of information overload and meeting increased environmental regulations.

We should expect technology-driven cognitive learning tools, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, to play a greater role in analysing data collected on-farm and in helping inform decision-making processes in the future. This technology relies on algorithms to process data, and then adapt and learn based on the data received. The more inputs and statistical information collected, the better the algorithm will be at predicting a range of outcomes.

However, limitations still exist with cognitive learning technology in a farm system, given the complex interactions of highly variable biological systems that are constantly exposed to changing and unpredictable environmental and climatic conditions. Even as this technology continues to improve through the accumulation of more data points and statistical information, rural professionals will still have a critical role in interpreting and validating the outputs from this type of technology. They must also have the ability to apply softer skills and intuition (or gut instinct), developed through experience in the field in sensing something untoward.

The ability to shut out the noise and to develop our own optics to see and sense the signals in front of us is extremely difficult to achieve when the media, politicians and self-styled industry commentators seem to all be shouting at us. To detect the signals around us, we need to develop acute awareness and better techniques to filter out the noise. This could include making better use of high quality information sources, challenging and debating issues or existing paradigms, breaking down the argument into core components, and listening more carefully to the signals from the marketplace, amongst others.

Take, for example, the new Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019, which will require livestock farmers to meet some highly ambitious and aspirational targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 2017 levels. While the Act will continue to be hotly debated, in filtering out the noise one thing that will not change is the baseline date from which emissions are set. So how well do livestock farmers know what their greenhouse gas emission numbers were for the 2017 year? If they don't, how do we determine this number from three years ago to demonstrate that livestock farmers and the industry are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in two, 10 or 30 years' time?

While there are significant changes occurring within the primary industry, this is a very exciting time to be in the rural profession. Bring on 2020.