Australian fruit growers have an increasing number of choices for farm management systems, time-tracking applications and accounting systems 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 to finding the right applications for his business. Today, he runs no fewer than 5 different software systems in his 64-hectare fruit operation. As a Nuffield scholar, it’s no surprise that McNab has a keen interest in technology, but where McNab pushes the boundaries is through his direct involvement in improving software for horticulture.
Mitchell McNab, is a fifth generation orchard grower and leads his family’s business in Ardmona, Victoria. H.V. McNab & Sons, is a 64 hectare operation that contains 23 varieties of fruit including apples, pears and plums - producing more than 2800 tonnes of fruit annually.
Following a business degree from RMIT in Melbourne, Mitchell came back to the family business and received a Nuffield Scholarship to investigate innovative robotics technology for the horticultural sector.
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.
On more than one occasion, McNab has stepped up and gotten 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.
“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.” - Mitchell McNab
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.
Over the past few months, 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.
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 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 organize their data and are keen to find easy ways for growers like McNab, to contribute to the process.
“When the Farmable team approached me to pilot their product, I was curious to see what this team from Norway was all about.” - Mitchell McNab
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 3 months with 10 pilot growers in Australia, the team gained valuable feedback from vineyard and orchard managers across the country. The concept was so successful in Australia, that the team will expand its pilot program to the UK and Germany for the 2020 season.
“Not everyone we approach is keen to try, says 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 3 weeks across Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to present their technology at evokeAg, AdvanceAg and meet many of their pilot growers face to face.
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. By working closely with growers across a variety of regions they aspire to build global best practices into the technology.
“We have a great appreciation for the feedback we receive from pilot users around the world. 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” - Lars Blikom
So, what do growers like McNab gain from all their time trialling software? While the return on investment isn’t always immediately quantifiable, directionally 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.” - Lars Blikom
“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” - Mitchell McNab
Farmable has used grower input to determine it’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 April 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. Interested in participating in a pilot program for Farmable? You can find more information at www.farmable.tech or contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.