Prepare for a data-led future as an agricultural advisor at Melbourne

Smart farming technologies will require agricultural graduates who can combine knowledge of farm systems with next generation digital tools.

A career as an agricultural advisor like an agronomist or plant and soil health specialist, an animal nutritionist, farm business advisor, extension officer or innovation broker allows graduates to work with a range of farming businesses, scientists and others to solve challenges and improve sustainability.

Advisor and farmer
Agricultural advisory practice is an increasingly important professional services area as farmers seek to integrate new tools, allowing graduates to apply scientific, technological and financial knowledge with relationship management.

And as in other sectors, these roles are applying new software and technology to increase automation of processes, remote work and data analysis to ensure resources are deployed efficiently and effectively.

Smart farming options that once sounded like speculative futurism will soon become increasingly common on farms, like using airborne imaging to enable targeted delivery of water and fertilisers or making sure each animal is getting the medicine and feed it needs with smart health monitoring.

To use these technologies well, the next generation of agriculture graduates will need to combine a thorough knowledge of agricultural systems with a high degree of technological literacy and the communication and leadership skills to help businesses implement them, says Professor Ruth Nettle, an agricultural workforce researcher and the coordinator of the University of Melbourne’s new Master of Agricultural Sciences specialisation, Agricultural Extension and Innovation.

“No two businesses are identical, and particularly where advisors are working with farmers to determine where they should invest their money in technology to get the best return, advisors need a thorough understanding of the people, the business and the technology,” she says.

Ruth Nettle
Rural Innovation Research Group leader Professor Ruth Nettle..

“Our students work with industry leaders to understand what works and what doesn’t, from advising on those products through to design and implementation. Our research has shown these professional skills will be essential to enable Australian agriculture to keep its leading edge.”

Jo Healey is a Masters student in her final semester with a professional background in information  communications technology who studied Agricultural Advisory Practice and Theory under Professor Nettle. She says while many of the experienced advisors she has spoken to give most advice in-person or over the phone, improved broadband connections in rural areas are creating new opportunities.

“I think a lot more people have technology available on-farm, and there’s certainly an opportunity to video-call an advisor and show them an issue with a crop, for example, and ask them for advice,” she says.

But integrating more videoconferencing into agricultural advisory practice is only part of the mix. Professor Nettle and her colleague Dr Margaret Ayre recently published research with DairyNZ colleagues that indicates advisors’ roles will shift and expand as new digital technologies enable the collection, management and use of far more digital data to drive decisions.

Dr Ayre says current and aspiring advisors should therefore develop “hybrid knowledge” that combines expertise in farm systems with an understanding of smart farming technologies, while developers should work with advisors to ensure these technologies present a clear value proposition for clients.

Marg Ayre
Senior Lecturer (Rural Innovation and Adaptation), Dr Margaret Ayre..

“Our research suggests smart farming innovation disrupts advisory practice and services by requiring advisors to move from an information gathering role to remote data interpretation,” Dr Ayre says.

“This means advisors will need different data analysis capabilities – to manage a real-time flow of detailed digital data from farming systems and understand how this data can be integrated into current farm management decision-making.

“There is therefore a need for advisors to continually build their level of understanding and engagement in smart farming innovation, and to play a role in data management and automated data gathering on farms.”

But as in other professions where credibility is key, Professor Nettle says advisors must also understand how to build trust with clients. This matches what Ms Healey has heard from advisors, including industry guest presentations in the course.

“A lot of their professional development has been on their presentation style and becoming a trusted advisor to their clients, developing a rapport,” she says.

“That’s one of the things about Agricultural Advisory Practice and Theory that I found particularly interesting; there were topics you might study in a psychology course. It got me thinking about how I conduct myself, the language I use, my style when presenting. There’s a lot in this subject for anyone who wants to improve their leadership skills.”

You can find out more about how the Master of Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural Extension and Innovation on Study Hub.

Banner image: Agricultural advisors co-design smart agriculture tools as part of a workshop with the University of Melbourne.