Agriculture is predicted to become Australia’s next $100 billion industry by 2030– and technology is going to play an increasingly pivotal role along the way. As an internationally recognised food systems innovation expert and CEO of three agtech companies, Sarah Nolet is on a mission to help Australian producers take the lead when it comes to the farming of the future.
Sarah Nolet doesn’t look – or sound – like your average local agricultural consultant. With the rapid-fire speech of California’s Silicon Valley and a background in computer science and entrepreneurship, she’s at the frontline paddling the powerful, tidal pull of tech swelling through mainstream agriculture. And, instead of leaving Aussie producers to flail in the whitewash, Sarah and her team are out between the flags, helping to teach them how to surf the wave.
Sarah and co-founder Dr Christine Pitt have this year launched Farmers2Founders; a national innovation program designed to accelerate primary producers in the agtech space. “We really started the business because we saw that they (agtech businesses) were often missing the mark in terms of solutions because often they didn’t understand agriculture, farmers or where their products could fit in,” Sarah says. “There are these big macro challenges facing agriculture and we know that producers are looking for and creating solutions. That got us thinking about what if we accelerated and supported the development of those solutions.”
With funding from the national government, Meat and Livestock Australia, AgriFutures Australia Australian Wool Innovation, Grains Research and Development Corporation and Wine Australia, F2F launched its first workshop in April. At the time of writing, more than 100 producers have thrown their hat in the ring with ideas for technologies they’d like to commercialise or solutions to problems inside the farm gate. “The phrase that resonates most with me is that we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 10,” Sarah says. “Technology is changing really fast but it’s not like tomorrow we’re only going to have lab grown meat and farm remotely with robots. A lot of these changes will happen in a step by step approach; we’ll see partial automation and changes happen over a period of time.”
Sarah was raised an innovator. With parents who were investors and entrepreneurs, she studied computer science and systems engineering in the United States before working in the defence industry. In her mid-20s she took a holiday to South America – which turned into a far longer sabbatical. “Americans don’t take gap years so I’m always grateful to Australia for that term, because at the time my parents thought I was going to become a hippie and never come home,” Sarah laughs. “There was a moment I was pulling weeds on an organic tomato crop that I started to really question a lot of the mythology and romanticism around organic farming, especially in places like Silicon Valley. I started thinking about technology and some of the technologies we were using in my world like satellites and imaging and I thought we could probably use some of those to make certain jobs suck a lot less and still ensure farming is sustainable and profitable.”
Her path into the world of agtech led her to Sydney four years ago and the founding of her two other businesses in global food and strategy and Australia’s first dedicated agrifood venture capital firm. “We’ve been asked why investors should put money into Australian ag and is this the best place for technology - we really think it is,” she says. “It’s a really well subsidised industry, it has the highest climate variability and volatility and there are all kinds of farming systems so the combinations of all those things, plus a really strong export market, means it’s a really good place to develop and test technologies. If it works here it’s likely to work elsewhere as it’s pretty tough here. We see that as a real opportunity.”
Her tour across regional Australia has taught Sarah the challenges facing the divide between country and city – and how humility, respect and an openness to sit at the table and talk are the foundational tools to subvert an ‘Us and Them’ culture. “I think it takes getting out there and that’s both sides. When you get out there it takes a combination of thick skin and humility,” she says. “My message to Australian farmers is to back yourself in the innovation and ideas that you come up with. We know that producers do have amazing ideas and are really thinking on the cutting edge of some of this stuff but maybe don’t have the confidence or knowledge to back themselves and take it to the next level, whether that’s adopting a technology, working with a technology company or building something themselves. The ideas we’ve seen are really good and it’s been a really fun and rewarding journey to go on.”