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Terry Brient - Tasmanian Agriculture Productivity Group

AU: Multi-million dollar project to manage water usage

The Tasmanian Agriculture Productivity Group (TAPG) is set to embark on a multi-million dollar Technology Project entitled "Waternet." If their submission is approved under a dollar for dollar funding program by the Federal government it will involve several large member companies, government organisations and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.

Executive Officer, Terry Brient says it is an upscaled version of a previous successful study in which farmers in North Eastern Tasmania were able to manage water usage through sensor technology and information sharing, to minimise the impacts of drought.

"Sensors were placed in a river that then sent information to a common dashboard that the farmer group who used the river for irrigation could access and, armed with this information during our last drought in the summer of 2014-15 they managed to avoid a 'cease to take' order in terms of the river flow," he said. "An independent audit reported that farming businesses involved averaged out about $86,000 in savings by not losing irrigation water for any period of time."

He adds that this sensor system could also be a massive boost to the state's fire fighting services.

"Fire Tasmania have to carry out a statutory amount of burn offs each year to reduce bushfire risk, but they have a very archaic way of knowing if the undergrowth and soil is okay to burn," Mr Brient said. "We are going to put sensors into those strategic positions so that they not only get that information on soil and the forest floor moisture, but they would also get Bureau of Meteorology data as well, including critical wind direction/strength."

TAPG represents 40 post farmgate companies in the state, from multi nationals to medium level. Its main purpose is to represent good policy options for company productivity to government as a lobby group. However, it is from this unique position that they also do advisory work in extension space, mostly around soil health.

"All of our extension work is done at paddock scale, not plot," Mr Brient said. "We get a commitment from a grower to use a paddock and monitor it throughout its normal rotation. So whatever amendments we do, we do it at the paddock scale and we think that's produced a set of authentic outcomes that everyone believes - and that other growers believe."

Mr Brient says the CRC project will also monitor the impact of upstream forestry activity and whether it affects the water quality, not only in a farming sense, but also in a shared community environment.

"We have in Tasmania a terrific resource in terms of our water, compared with the rest of Australia," he said. "It has to be used well. When you think about river systems, the commons are the people at the end in the towns and cities that drink the water, or play in water or the wetlands for the animals. That's what the river is there for, and we go ahead with our projects, saying we are going to do this, grow that, increase productivity here, forgetting often that we are using a common resource and we have got to be responsible for it so that people who need it at the end still get it."

The group is also heavily involved in precision agriculture, with an annual EXPO which is attended by over 300 people. It includes presentations, both field and static demonstrations, as well as booths and displays. Mr Brient says the highlight last year was "The Ripper" robot.

"It has built in optics which enables it to tell the difference between a weed and a lettuce, for example," he said. "If it looks at the lettuce and it looks a bit dry it will give it a squirt of water. If there is a weed nearby it will hit it with herbicide. When it gets to the end of the row it will turn around and come down the next row and when it runs out of power it will stop and wait for the sun to recharge its battery and just starts up again. It's a bit early (for growers to buy), but we believe it is our responsibility to show where the edge is, as well as what the practical stuff is."

As for the future, TAPG believes the industry is going through a generational change and Mr Brient says being different and innovative in establishing niche markets is essential for long term sustainability. Emphasising the importance of agricultural education and maintaining and furthering our public licence is the responsibility of all involved in the industry and is vital for our future success.

"We are not going to get more for our product, so we have to be smarter about maintaining an honest margin by keeping the cost of production down," he said.

For more information:
Terry Brient
Tel:+61 3 6391 2010

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