The state of rural computing in NZ

Last week I spent two days at New Zealand National Agricultural Fieldays, “Australasia’s definitive agri-business exhibition,” so that I could speak with farmers, businesses and government about the current state of rural computing.

Rural Broadband & Wireless
As pervasive computing becomes the default computing paradigm for urban environments, the future of rural computing is still highly dependent on basic infrastructural needs being met. In April, the NZ government reached agreements with Telecom and Vodafone for “a $285 million infrastructure roll out that will bring more and faster broadband to rural areas over the next six years.”

Ultimately, the NZ Rural Broadband Initiative will mean that 86% of rural homes and businesses will have broadband peak speeds of at least 5Mbps and 95% of schools will have access to ultra-fast broadband speeds of 100Mbps. Additionally, 154 new cell phone towers and the upgrading of 380 existing cell towers will enable fixed wireless broadband and improved mobile coverage. In areas where DSL won’t be available, or is simply too slow, wireless services are seen to be particularly important.

No.8 Wireless provided free wifi at Fieldays, and is one of NZ’s rural service providers. Their advertising (above) plays on competition between farmers and “townies,” and Rural Inzone markets their internet services as “hardworking and easy-as”–a descriptor that resonates with well-known rural social and cultural identities.

While speed (almost 50% faster than commonly used dial-up connections) and immunity to interference from electric fences were cited as the most tangible benefits of rural wireless, non-infrastructural obstacles to stable wireless coverage include topographic features like hills and mountains–part and parcel of NZ pasture lands–and even trees. Farmside, also present, remains the country’s leading rural internet service provider, and for the approximately 20% of NZ rural inhabitants without dial-up, DSL or wireless access, satellite internet remains the only, albeit more expensive, option. Additionally, Wright Satellite Connections positioned their products and services as means for ensuring rural safety and security.

Given the benefits of rural wireless, and the possibility of lowered costs, I wondered about mobile phone use. Vodafone developed a Fieldays site-map iPhone app, both as a means to navigate the massive event and as a way of “showing its commitment to NZ’s rural sector.” However, many farmers voiced concerns about the physical durability and robustness of the iPhone, and showed far more interest in the Samsung E2370 Rugged–which is highly resistant to dust and water, and has excellent battery life, and the Motorola Defy–which also has a tough exterior and good protection from dust and water. (This seems to suggest that anyone interested in developing mobile apps for farming should probably start with Android, or at least make sure that they have an Android option. For example, the IFarmer:Inventory app is made for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Symbian.)  Global Communications was also on-site to promote “rugged, mobile and field-use computing products,” including some pretty heavy-duty laptops, tablets, mobiles and vehicle-mounted devices.

Farm Mapping & Management

Moving beyond internet connectivity and communication devices, rural computing has long been highly invested in the use of GPS. Companies like GeoSystems have been providing surveying and mapping products and services since 1985, and companies like GPS-iT (advert left) and Wheresmycows focus on mapping as a means to increase productivity and efficiency on the farm by enabling better feed budgeting, fertiliser/seeding/spraying planning, paddock subdivision and fencing, or putting in water lines and other features.

FarmWorks also offers mapping products and services, as well as a host of related meters and farm management software.

“This information and technology for site-specific farming allows farmers to identify, analyze, and manage the spatial and temporal variability of soil and plants for optimum profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment.”

The products I saw demo-ed enable farmers to record all paddock and crop inputs, operations and yields; monitor paddock pasture covers growth rates, feed wedge, by paddock and management unit; calculate animal feed demand and supply from daily rationing to annual feed budgeting; and record all livestock production, health, reproduction and management records, including livestock transactions and reconciliation, grazing, feeding records for both pastures and supplements, and wool production. Their FarmNet system also supports effluent monitoring, weather monitoring and soil monitoring, while Ag-Hub offers a centralised online farm management tool with customisable modules. I spent a fair amount of time at their exhibition, and I was most impressed by their active interest in learning precisely what farmers wanted and needed, and how they could help provide it.

One aspect of computer-enabled farm management I had overlooked or underestimated is farm security. For example, All Seasons Security provides video surveillance products to stop livestock, equipment, vehicle and fuel theft, as well as milk vat contamination, while Target Technology also offers wireless alarm systems.

Electronic Livestock Identification
But the technological systems in which I was most interested were those related to livestock identification and herd management, and I spent a lot of time chatting with farmers, government and industry representatives in and around the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) exhibit.

[Tony Corcoran, the operations manager for NAIT, shows the new tagging system. Photo – Danni Winmill.]

The biggest news, of course, is that the mandatory tagging of cattle has been deferred to next year, as government attention and finances are currently focussed on earthquake recovery and it is unlikely the legislation will pass before the general election in November. The delay is possible because the scheme is not entirely market-driven in the sense that NZ is currently able to sell its dairy and beef products without this assurance in place, and the delay is also seen to be a way for the technological systems to undergo further development and testing.

Federated Farmers welcomed the delay:

“Since Government is clear that it wants compulsion, then we need a system that will generate real value to farmers.  It should be about improving the farmer’s bottom line by demonstrating real productive value inside the farm gate. We’d like to sit down with NAIT Limited and MAF to discuss how the scheme can be further improved like using Ultra High Frequency (UHF-RFID) tags that enables data to be stored and manipulated. The delay also brings closer alignment with the rural broadband initiative that is pretty much critical for farmers being able to work the system.  We’d be keen to see how this all meshes with the work now going into precision farming.”

Most of the farmers with whom I spoke were also grateful for the extension, and from the conversations at the NAIT exhibit, farmer concerns around NAIT seem very practical. Most wanted to know how to deal with specific situations, and their questions revolved around wanting to know exactly what they needed to do. Some farmers were concerned about the costs; NAIT compliance will add another two dollars to the cost of tagging livestock animals, and one farmer, pushing back against mandatory compliance and marketing-speak, insisted that NAIT “is a cost, not an investment!” Otherwise, some farmers were concerned with what the government might do with the data collected: as one farmer bluntly put it, “How do I know you bastards won’t use this information as a way to tax me on emissions?” The NAIT representative explained, to the farmer’s satisfaction, that it was impossible under current law.

I snapped the following store window display with my phone while walking down Victoria Street in Cambridge, as it struck me as a good indicator of public interest in NAIT. It featured a mock fight between politicians and farmers, as well as a copy of Farmers Weekly on the NAIT delay, which focussed on how the delay would allow for voluntary compliance before the scheme was made mandatory.

Regardless of the delay, farmers are being strongly encouraged to tag new calves now to avoid the cost and effort of tagging older animals later. The largest electronic identification (EID) exhibit I visited was Gallagher, and although they only sell portable and fixed RFID readers, they had teamed-up with Allflex tags and LIC/MINDA software to provide a complete “EID Start Up Package.” Very friendly and helpful staff explained the products in great detail, often using examples from their own or family farm experience, and dairy farmers in particular were quite enthusiastic in their interest and support.

I also spent some time at the Zee Tags exhibit, which was also focussed on NAIT compliance but allowed me to check out what kinds of tags are currently available for sheep as well. At this point, sheep RFID is mainly being used to track pedigree and apparently the small animal button RFID tags are being replaced with RFID-enabled strip tags. (TagTek offers a similar EID product that combines a button and loop.) Although not currently included in the NAIT scheme, Dairy New Zealand’s general manager of policy has said that “sheep should be included within NAIT at the earliest possible opportunity,” because they are “vulnerable to catastrophic diseases such as foot and mouth – which could also spread to cattle, deer and pigs.”

On the topic of sheep, I was also really impressed by Advanced Romney Designer Genetics‘ work in breeding facial eczema tolerant and worm resistant animals. And the Primary Wool Cooperative had a lovely, hands-on exhibit that told the story of NZ wool from grower to garment (and other things):

“Approx 29,000 farmers, everyday taking care of 32.5 million free range New Zealand sheep. 4000 shearers work to harvest the wool. Around 173,000 tonnes of greasy wool handled yearly. $552.5 million worth of wool fibre exported in FY2010. 110,000 fleeces washed clean daily. Several billion kilometres of yarn spun every year. Designed, tufted, felted, woven, knitted, made into an endlessly diverse range of beautiful products for you to enjoy.”

It showcased everything from the Just Shorn brand to Natural Wool Products insulation, and I enjoyed Billy Black’s entertaining demonstration of how incredibly fire-retardant the fibre is compared to synthetics.

In the end, and although two teenage girls walking behind us humourously debated why anyone would ever go to Fieldays for two days in a row, I found that I needed at least that much time to start noticing patterns in what I was observing. The site was massive and it took a fair amount of time to wrap my head around all the products and services that were available. (To be honest, I also got distracted by dog trials and the Galloway Cattle Society of NZ exhibition, which showcased some of the most ridiculously good-looking cattle I have ever seen.) And now, a week later, the things that have stuck with me the most are how technologically savvy NZ farmers are and how the RFID tagging issue has been made one of cost vs. investment.

I’ve been thinking that the cost of NAIT compliance for farmers is relatively immediate and high. The price of new and replacements tags, RFID readers and software quickly adds up, and items will need to be regularly upgraded. The expenditure of effort, especially during the transition phase, is even more substantial. Any loss incurred is more difficult to identify and assess, but I might suggest that we include here any difficult or disruptive changes to lifestyle and work processes.

And as someone interested in how issues surrounding new technological systems are shaped, I am most struck by how shifting focus away from such near-term costs to the notion of investment or future benefit rather effectively works to remove people’s current experiences and concerns from public discussion. Profits and other worthwhile results are expected or promised to make up for any real and potential costs, but of course there are no guarantees and most people with whom I spoke were more than a little skeptical and wary. The benefits of EID tend to be put in either biosecurity or market terms, although both scenarios are future-oriented and difficult to quantify or prove to customers who want that kind of assurance right now.

Unsurprisingly, my work became more complicated because of my time at Fieldays. After talking with farmers, industry and government reps about my research, I’m running right up against the challenge of what exactly design (research) can offer that isn’t just another consumer product or marketing. But more on that later because right now all I can think about is the awesome cinnamon-sugar covered donuts I ate while I was wandering around Mystery Creek…