Australian government offering AU$60m in grants to encourage smart farming

Between AU$250,000 and AU$4 million will be provided to organisations and individuals looking to trial and implement innovative farming solutions that will help improve the condition of soils and vegetation.

The Australian federal government has announced it is offering AU$60 million in grants to support "smart farming partnerships" under the AU$1 billion National Landcare Program.

Multi-year grants of between AU$250,000 to AU$4 million will be provided to individuals and organisations in the agriculture, fishing, aquaculture, and farm forestry industries that are looking to trial or implement "innovative sustainable land management practices" in an effort to improve the condition of natural resources such as soils and vegetation, as well as protect biodiversity.

"The coalition government supports innovation and these partnership grants will get behind larger projects and support the formation of effective partnerships between experienced and skilled organisations and individuals," Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce said in a statement.

"The grants will help groups of organisations to come up with, or take advantage of the next great idea, the benefits of which can be shared across the sector.

"Having healthy and productive soils, biodiversity, and vegetation benefits farmers, communities, and consumers."

The government is accepting applications from October 19 to December 21.

A collaborative agricultural ecosystem is already forming in Australia. In February, a number of public and private organisations including Cisco, CSIRO's data innovation group Data61, and the University of New South Wales launched an innovation centre in Sydney focused on developing new uses for IoT within the agriculture sector.

A few months later, in April, Food Agility -- a consortium of commercial companies, universities, and farming industry bodies looking to facilitate the digital transformation of agriculture industry in Australia -- announced it would receive AU$50 million over the next 10 years as part of the federal government's Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program.

The government funding adds to the AU$160 million in contributions -- both monetary and non-monetary -- previously raised by the organisation from partners such as KPMG, National Australia Bank, IAG, and Bosch.

In August, Data61 announced forming a partnership with Australian-listed agribusiness network Ruralco to develop solutions aimed at improving efficiency and sustainability in the agriculture sector through better use of data and emerging technologies.

Combining CSIRO's experience in data science research and engineering with Ruralco's on-ground network, the partnership will see the organisations explore the use of drones for livestock detection; development of long-range sensing for automation; adaptation of geospatial tools for improved decision-making; and fertiliser, nutrient, and water management, Data61 explained at the time.

Earlier this month, the Queensland government announced it would be deploying Ergon Energy internet-connected meters in the state's northern region in the coming months to help local farmers minimise the spread of Panama disease, a fungus that affects the tissues of the banana plant.

Up to 600 meters will be installed in the Tully and Innisfail areas, where a majority of Australia's bananas are produced.

Due to Panama TR4 biosecurity concerns and strict quarantine measures, Ergon -- a subsidiary of government-owned power company Energy Queensland Limited -- made the decision to stop all entry of their contract meter readers onto farms and install digital meters that could be read remotely, Energy Minister Mark Bailey has said.

"The meters will be read remotely using the 3G/4G telecommunication networks and where availability of those networks is limited, farmers will be asked to perform self-meter reads and communicate that information to Ergon," Bailey said in a statement earlier this month.

"The digital meters will also allow faster access to data -- this can be used by farmers to make better decisions on tariff options and improve their energy consumption."

The Queensland government said it had invested more than AU$120 million into agricultural research and development in 2016-17, and will continue investing in the sector.

"The funds went directly to boosting business growth across the sector in close collaboration with industry priorities such as new varieties, crop protection, and farming systems," Acting Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Leeanne Enoch said in a statement in September.

The state government is additionally exploring the potential use of new technologies such as drones to more accurately map disease and predict yields in vegetable crops. It published a consultation paper on the implementation Australia's first whole-of-government drones strategy, addressing the technology's business opportunities and regulatory challenges.

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