Aussie input goes into global orchard app

Australian fruit growers have an increasing number of choices for farm management systems, time-tracking applications and accounting programs to decide between. Put this alongside the growing list of legislative requirements on fruit producers and choosing a software program quickly becomes a head-splitting conundrum.

Mitchell McNab, an orchard manager from Victoria, has committed hundreds of hours finding the right applications for his business. Today, he runs no fewer than five different software systems. The family’s 64-hectare fruit operation has 23 fruit varieties, including apples, pears and plums – producing more than 2800 tonnes annually.

An integrated operation, H.V. McNab & Sons also operates a cold storage facility with capacity for over 4000 pallets of fruit. In addition to the storage business, the farm focuses on fresh fruit supply and packing for domestic and overseas markets.

A business degree graduate from RMIT in Melbourne, Mr McNab received a Nuffield Scholarship to investigate innovative robotics technology for the horticultural sector. It’s no surprise therefore that he has a keen interest in technology, but where he pushes the boundaries is his direct involvement in improving software specifically for tree crops.

On more than one occasion, McNab has stepped up and become directly involved in the development of software being built by private companies, often when the product was only at beta-level functionality. For example, in 2017 McNab started collaborating with Israeli-based PickApp to provide insights to improve their system for tracking harvest operations.

While most growers don’t want to look at software until it has been ‘perfected’, tech teams rely on early stage feedback during their development cycles in order to focus on the problems that matter most to today’s fruit operations.

“Working directly with software teams, gives me the best chance to influence the end product and ultimately receive a tool I want to use in my business,” Mr McNab said. “When the Farmable team approached me to pilot their product, I was curious to see what this team from Norway was all about.”

In recent months, Mr McNab participated in a pilot study with a newcomer to the agtech scene, Norwegian-based Farmable. Farmable is a mobile app designed specifically for tree crop farmers. The team has a focused approach on fruit that sets it apart from the many farm management applications which are often built first and foremost for broad-acre crops and then adapted.

The Farmable team grew out of Norway’s largest fruit farm and was looking for simple and pragmatic software to bridge the current gap between spreadsheets and robotics.

Lars Blikom, is both the Farmable CEO and co-owner of the Norway fruit operation. He understands how precious user feedback is and how challenging it can be for growers to make time to try software that is still under-development.

The team is now on a mission to reinvent how farmers gather and organise their data and are keen to find easy ways for growers like Mr McNab, to contribute to the process.

Integrating user feedback is core to Farmable’s way of working and extensive pilot programs are becoming a cornerstone to their development cycles. After spending three months with 10 pilot growers in Australia, the team gained valuable feedback from vineyard and orchard managers across the country.

“Not everyone we approach is keen to try, says Mr Blikom. “Many feel too busy or perhaps intimidated by new technology, but we try to include all types of growers in our pilot programs. You don’t need to be a ‘computer nerd’ to make a big impact in a software trial.”

Since the pilot, Farmable has gone ‘all-in’ on the Australian market. In addition to launching their latest mobile app in Australia, the team spent three weeks across Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to present their technology at evokeAg, AdvanceAg and meet many of their pilot growers face-to-face.

Mr Blikom says being based in Europe and working across several countries from an early stage, offers the Farmable team a unique perspective on the global challenges facing fruit producers across a variety of regions. Farmable believes this diverse input will help in their aspiration to build global best practices into the technology.

“We have a great appreciation for the feedback we receive from pilot users around the world,” Mr Blikom said. “There is a recurring theme in Europe and Australia on the challenges of increasing documentation requirements and it’s overwhelming for growers.

“In the same way, the teams developing software experience a never-ending list of features that could be built. When you consider the need to create a simple, user friendly tool, frequent input from growers becomes essential.” In fact, the concept was so successful in Australia, that the team will expand its pilot program to the UK and Germany.

So, what do growers like McNab gain from all their time trialling software? While the return on investment isn’t always immediately quantifiable, Mr Blikom says the quality of the products coming into the hands of growers is getting better and better, and this is in large part due to the commitment of a small number of ‘forward-leaning’ growers.

“If we want the pace of change to accelerate, the horticultural ecosystem needs more growers to actively participate in crafting the technology,” he said.

Mitchell McNab agrees: “It’s incredibly rewarding to contribute to a digital future and watch new ideas take shape. I think particularly in horticulture, the grower needs to be central to the development of any new app if we expect to have technology adopted for fruit production. This means making time to try new things & offer genuine advice.”

Grower input like this has helped determine Farmable’s first features, which include: mapping blocks, recording scout notes (with GPS coordinates and images), tracking crop treatments and logging harvest volumes down to the block level. In the coming months, Farmable will launch task management, weather system integration and an exportable reporting tool for spray records.

In 2020 the team plans to launch a complementary profile for agronomists to improve the flow of information between growers and advisors. This means the team will be expanding their search for pilot growers to include pilot advisors as well.

Farmable system at a glance:

● Farmable has developed an operating system for tree crop farms, where all data from field operations are collected in one place and form the basis for a digital model of the farm

● The grower can document crop treatment and access a spray calculator that specifies the amount of product needed. A job management function uses GPS technology to track spraying in the field and automatically logs activity

● Issues spotted in the field can easily be recorded using the app’s field notes, which can be shared together with GPS coordinates to communicate with agronomists or other team members

● Harvest logging allows users to track yield back to the block level.

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