Redefining excellence in agribusiness advisory. The role of the rural advisor in the modern world.

Executive summary

The farming world is striving to feed an ever-increasing population from a declining land area whilst at the same time reducing its environmental footprint. As farmers evolve their practices to meet these challenges, the rural advisor working alongside the farmer must also evolve to meet the needs of the industry and the wider community – or run the risk of becoming obsolete.

This Nuffield report explores the trends and issues facing the rural advisor and provides guidance for the future roles and necessary skillsets of the advisor so they can continue to add value to the primary sector.

The objectives of this Nuffield research report were:

1. To understand the trends in the use of technology in the agricultural sector, and how these trends will affect the role of the agricultural advisor.

2. To provide recommendations on the future role of the agricultural advisor, and to investigate optimal business models for the agricultural advisory sector.

The desired outcomes from this research are to redefine what excellence looks like in agribusiness consultancy, and as a result increasing productivity in the agricultural sector, whilst at the same time reducing the environmental footprint of the primary sector.

A rural advisor, also known as a farm advisor, farm consultant or rural professional, works within the agricultural sector to support farmers in the theory and practice of farming. The intention is to add value to the farming business, recognising that the definition of value will vary between clients.

To anticipate the future role of the rural advisor it was necessary to understand some of the key trends facing farmers:

i) Scale and complexity: Farms continue to increase in size, and as a result complexity. The amount of information available to each farming business is increasing each year at a rapid rate, and this makes it more challenging to analyse and interpret the data.

ii) The commodity cost-price squeeze. Farmers who are producing a commodity face the continual challenge of increasing input costs and a decreasing margin, whilst at the same time being scrutinised more closely.

iii) A declining (farm) labour force is forcing farmers to adopt new technology that will reduce labour requirements, as well as altering the skill set requirements of farmers.

iv) Social licence to farm: Farmers around the world are facing an increased level of scrutiny by the public and the consumer. This scrutiny includes the areas of animal welfare, environmental impacts and labour treatment.

v) Increasing use of technology on farm. As farmers adopt new technologies, so too must the rural advisor become proficient with the technology in order to stay relevant.

vi) Land ownership versus management. There is a worldwide trend towards a separation between the ownership of land and the management of land.

Developments in Agri-tech are impacting on both how farmers manage their farms, how rural advisors are interacting with their clients, and how they are managing their own businesses. However, for Agri-tech to have maximum impact, there are two fundamental issues that continually frustrate those working in the New Zealand primary sector:

a) Lack of internet connectivity.
b) Lack of data sharing and interoperability.

These issues are not new, but until they are resolved the ability for Agri-tech to influence farming in New Zealand will be constrained.

From an agri-tech perspective, the increasing of artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture has the potential to have a significant impact on the role of an advisor. Around the world there are already many instances where AI is replacing the traditional knowledge transfer role of the advisor. For example, Climate FieldView is auto-scripting corn sowing rates and fertiliser recommendations for US crop farmers. Farmer. Chat is an AI system providing agronomy advice for small scale cropping farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and India. Closer to home, wearable technologies for cattle such as Halter are providing detailed farm management insights directly to the farmer.

The role of a farm advisor or rural professional varies widely throughout the world, between sectors and between organisations. For those advisors whose role is purely focused on providing only technical advice, the impact of technology may be rapid and profound, to the point that their role may not exist in the future.