Putri Shafira: How tech is transforming agriculture

Today’s agriculture students understand that as the world’s population grows towards 10 billion people over the next 30 years, farming will need to become a climate neutral, or even beneficial, industry.

“At the moment agriculture is one of the world’s top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” says Putri Shafira from Indonesia, who recently entered her final year of her Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of Melbourne.

“We have to shift our way of producing food to be more environmentally friendly by minimising resource inputs and waste, and maximising output.

“In class we’ve learnt the importance of embracing soil diversity, which is a major factor in maintaining healthy soils. This can as simple as embracing conservation tillage practices and selecting for crops’ traits, leading to better growing crops with minimised water usage, nutrient pollution, and carbon emissions.”

Implementing new technology will be key to that goal. Recent developments in data analysis and geospatial engineering will allow future agricultural professionals to help farmers make their businesses more efficient and sustainable through automation and waste minimisation, and more heat- and drought-tolerant through new breeds of plants and better environmental management.

Putri Shafira
Putri Shafira in student accommodation at the University of Melbourne Dookie campus.

Agriculture is also dependent on weather, so farmers need financial and business planning advice to help them to take advantage of good conditions and prepare for lean times.

Most University of Melbourne agriculture graduates move into these types of professional roles – technical and scientific and advice, financial services, environmental management or marketing and merchandising.

This means graduates need the communication skills, credibility and confidence to provide value to experienced farmers.

Like most students, Putri had not been involved in farming before she shared the degree. But classes that balance classroom and lab-based learning with fieldwork and visits to different types farming businesses have given her valuable hands-on experience.

“I like to do practical things and being out in the field, not just sitting down and working without knowing what is actually happening on the ground,” she says.

Putri has gained this hands-on experience while living and studying at the University’s Dookie campus, a ‘living laboratory’ for agricultural research and teaching with 2,440 hectares of pastures, crops and bushland, over 8,000 merino sheep and a robotic dairy.

Bachelor of Agriculture students can choose to spend a semester or more learning at Dookie, where around 100 students and staff work together in small, supportive and practical classes. Putri says it’s been the highlight of her studies so far.

“Studying at Dookie was a whole new experience that I wouldn’t be able to get from any other place,” she says.

“Learning how to work on a farm by knowing what farmers actually do to make it work, from determining good conditions for farming to the management of fields to managing the economics of a farming business, has given me a lot more confidence.

“I’ve gotten hands-on experience growing vegetables, understanding and managing sheep behaviour, and even completed a Certificate III in Agriculture, which has given me technical skills that will be useful for my career.”

But she’s balanced getting her hands dirty at Dookie with exploring innovation like the automated dairy, microwave technology to kill weeds without herbicides and experimental cropping.

Putri says she’s most interested in how nanotechnology will make agriculture more efficient and sustainable.

“As part of precision agriculture, nano-fertilisers and -pesticides, as well as nanosensors, will lead to significantly more sustainable farming,” she says.

“These technologies allow plant nutrients to be delivered in precise dosages. Therefore, inefficiencies of traditional bulk agrichemicals will be cut, resulting in minimal waste with increased food production.”

Banner image: Putri Shafira learns how scientists monitor plant nutrition during a research trial at Dookie campus.