The fourth industrial revolution: agriculture

Every year, KPMG’s Agribusiness Agenda takes a look at the primary sector – what agribusiness leaders are concerned about, and what they need to be doing to stay ahead of the game.

 

 

It was 2001 when Dan Shand got the call from his dad on the family’s North Canterbury hill station. “Did I want to give the farm a crack?” Dan was a graphic and web designer; his wife Mandy was a scuba diving instructor. They were both based in Sydney. But they decided, yes, they’d give it a shot.

The first task: diversification, in order to create some additional revenue to keep the farm viable. Shand’s parents kept working the cows, deer, sheep, and Dan and Mandy started building a three-night walking track through the beautiful Canterbury high country.

Building paths and accommodation was fine, but marketing the track using the farm’s dial-up internet connection proved a nightmare.

“People would send us a booking, but there was such a delay with the connection. Often we had to get up in the middle of the night to send emails to people. Updating the website was horrendous. I asked our service provider what to do about my speeds and he told me to get in the car, turn the radio onto the AM bandwidth between stations and drive up the road until I heard a strong clicking. Then go tell the farmer they needed to get a better earth on their electric fence. By the end of the trip I’d got at least 30 places where I heard clicks. I was facing talking to a whole lot of neighbours who didn’t care about my internet problems, and telling them to fix their electric fences.”

Running a successful international tourism business from Hurunui was looking unlikely.

But in 2005 the Shands’ luck changed. Dan heard that a local farmer/electrician,
Chris Roberts, had set up Amuri.net, supplying internet connections using strategically-placed wireless towers, mostly powered by solar or wind. Shand was his sixth customer. And although speeds aren’t huge – on an average day they might get around 15Mbps down and 5-10Mbps up – that was enough to do what they needed.

 

 

“It was life changing for us. Finally I could start getting marketing traction and the business took off. We were doing 800-1000 people a year.”

Since then, the Shands have started a honey business, and taken over more of the operation of the livestock part of the farm. They employ four staff.

Shand says the internet powers every part of his business, from recruitment (using Skype interviews), to banking and business management apps, to Google Drive for all the farm documents, and My Maps for plotting the farm. With no mobile phone coverage on the farm, Dan and Mandy use messaging to communicate with each other and with staff in the back paddocks.

More recently Shand has started a stock management software business, teaming up with partners and developers around the world. “Every morning at 6am I Skype with my business partner in Chicago. Then on Sunday night at midnight New Zealand time we have a Skype conference with the whole team – in Boston, Chicago, Lithuania, Thailand, Brisbane, and Hurunui. Our product’s been over two years in development and we are two months’ away from launch and getting a serious amount of interest. There is a lot of talk in the rural sector about value creation, but that will only happen with connectivity.”

 

 

Then there’s the human angle, Shand says. There used to be “FOMO” – the fear of missing out on what’s going on online, Shand says. These days there’s RuralFomo too – the fear of missing out on finding out what you are missing out on. Young people just need to be connected – period.

“My farm worker, Billy, he’s 23 and went to Lincoln. He’s single so he needs broadband to communicate with all his friends. No way would he have taken the job without it. And we have a lot of Wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms) helping us. They need to be connecting with the next place they are going to, making plans for the rest of their trip. None of them would come if we didn’t have good internet. And our children (10 and 7) they need it for homework and things like playing Minecraft with their friends. Our life is embedded in the internet, in a useful, healthy way.”