The Number 8 RE-wire

By Sophie Stanley

This blog originally appeared on www.tepunahamatatini.ac.nz

Agriculture used to be New Zealand’s main bread and butter. Our small pacific nation at the edge of the earth was bred on a “number eight wire” mentality, where ingenuity and resourcefulness was at the core of what we do, and the number of sheep were ten fold the number of people. Turning pieces of scrap metal into revolutionary ideas which the world has stood up and taken note of is something we have always prided ourselves on. William Gallagher, one of the many legendary innovators who invented the trusty electric fence and lead the way in taking NZ agriculture into the future, personifies the very meaning of number 8 wire mentality. But it’s not only NZ, agriculture globally has had to rely on innovation to keep up the pace to feed the world’s growing population, economically and also sustainably. Farming may not sound sexy when you are talking dirty gumboots, and 4am wake up calls, but it’s always had innovation at its core.

In the reforms of the 1980s, when government support and subsidies were removed from farmers, and interest rates were as high as 20%, farmers had to innovate to survive; innovate to survive; innovate to survive. And survive they did, by diversifying their operations, exploring new markets and restructuring the way they did business, increasing productivity along the way.  And we still see that today, in the face of volatility in primary sector commodity prices. And because of that, NZ is seen globally as a world leader in its field for agriculture.

Over the last ten years we have also seen a thriving tech sector burgeon – a test lab at the bottom of the world where people can get ideas to market quickly, test them on a small scale, and then take those ideas to the world. In fact, that is how our company, Figured, started two years ago, and how we have adapted our business model during that time by adapting and evolving quickly.  The intersection of tech and agriculture, was the foundation for growing our start-up Figured which is a SaaS farm management accounting tool that works hand in hand with Xero.  You may think tech and agriculture couldn’t be more further apart, but the similarities between the industries couldn’t be closer together, and farmers, whether they realise it or not, are using a lot of technology in their businesses.  But over the last few years – there’s a worrying trend.

I grew up on a sheep and beef farm, studied agriculture and am passionate about the industry. I chose to study agriculture at university, despite being told that it was the subject to do if you weren’t smart enough to do anything else, and have gone on to build my career on the foundation of my love of agriculture.

The average age of NZ farmers is now over 60 years old, however there is a reduction in talented young people coming into the sector both on farm and in all tertiary education fields, with student numbers reducing from just under 14000 students in 2008, to just under 11000 in 2015. The agriculture sector isn’t just practical – the industry requires not only on-farm skills, but science for research and development, business management and technology. After all, something everyone on this planet has in common is the fact we require food, and food comes from the agricultural sector. Then we look at the burgeoning tech sector, $15b contribution to NZ GDP now coming from tech sector but the shortage of homegrown skills to employ from and intense competition for skills between many similar companies means we are often having to look offshore for talent to fill the gap (we know this first hand at Figured trying to employ good development staff on our team!)

So, how do we build the talent pool for in two of New Zealand’s two most important export sectors so we can face tomorrow’s future challenges, and continue to innovate? Because at the end of day, our next few generations have some serious tasks at hand, particularly with issues like climate change, feeding the world whilst maintaining a sustainable environment.

How can the ag sector use technology to continue to innovate and adapt, to survive and grow? And how do we get our young people passionate about the challenge?

  • We have learnt a lot at Figured. As a part farming, part fin-tech start up, we have really developed a culture that attracts a diverse range of talents, ranging from pure technology background to those with practical on-farm experience. Compared to a traditional corporate model, our team enjoy the speed and delivery of real innovation that people can see and touch soon after the idea has been created. With the average age of our team closer to 30, we’ve cultivated an environment which aligns closely to how our employees prefer to engage with their work – they’re digital natives who thrive in a flexible, non-hierarchical culture with transparent leadership.
  • Education from early stages is critical. Traditional IT courses at primary and secondary school should be moving away from learning Word and Excel (we only use Google platform at Figured), to software design and coding, giving youth the opportunity to experiment and create.  We also need to take away perceptions that the agriculture industry is not for our smartest talent, as there is a wide number of opportunities in all fields related to food production that is critical to our country and, indeed the world, which doesn’t involve just getting your hands dirty. This starts with our educators.
  • Creating safe spaces for people to fail is important, but do so quickly so we can adapt and learn – this is the core of innovation.
  • With the average age of farmers being over 60 years old now, we need to not just solve problems for their generation but be forward-looking in the solutions that our next generation require.  The youth of today were brought up with internet and mobile technology and find it second nature. Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.  We keep this mentality at the core of what we do at Figured, by creating solutions that people don’t know can yet exist (yes, that’s even possible in the world of farm accounting!).
  • Bringing broadband and connectivity to rural regions will make living in rural locations more attractive as people will still be able to connect, as well as manage their businesses more effectively (like using tools such as Xero and Figured).
  • Encourage travel. I was fortunate enough to see many different countries, from India, China, the Middle East and Ukraine, to western countries like the US and UK as part of a Nuffield farming scholarship which enabled me to research technology and communication in agriculture.  This opened up my eyes to the reality of challenges our sector faces, but also the opportunities that exist if innovation and technology can be implemented effectively. Travel also creates confidence in young people to go outside comfort zone which is critical to an enquiring mind.

We always have had number 8 wire mentality – but we need to continuously re-wire it. Number 8 wire of today, looks different from that of tomorrow, so we also need to ensure our future generation have the skills to solve the problems that don’t exist yet, and merging agriculture with technology is a good place to start the innovation journey.