Ag Tech News
International Prize for Precision Agriculture Pioneer
Congratulations to former UNE Distinguished Professor and SMART farming pioneer David Lamb on receiving a prestigious ag tech award from the International Society of Precision Agriculture.
The applied physics guru and chief scientist of the Food Agility Cooperative Research Center (CRC) was awarded the Pierre C. Robert Precision Agriculture Award, becoming the first Australian to receive the honor.
But in his inimitable humble style, David used the opportunity to applaud his collaborators during a 30-year career that has seen him launch Australia’s first SMART farm, at UNE, and help establish the Global Digital Farm at Charles Sturt University.
“This award recognises Australia’s role as a powerhouse in this space,” said David, a proud UNE science alumnus, lecturer (rising to Distinguished Professor) and now Adjunct Professor. “I have been aided and abetted by some amazing people around the country, so I am not alone. I was pretty chuffed even to have been nominated, knowing the who’s who around the world with whom I’ve worked with and considered mentors.”
But when it comes to innovation in agricultural production, David is a global leader. He has been at the forefront of precision agriculture since the discipline was born in the 1990s and has since led more than 40 research and development projects funded by the industry. The Australian landscape has demanded it.
“Australia is still the crucible of ag tech and ag innovation – our rainfall, the tyranny of distance, the sparsity, the whole deal,” David said. “Every one of the 27 projects we are now running in the Food Agility CRC is being pushed to its limits by some vagaries of Australia. It’s not just the physical, geographical and technological challenges, it’s also that we have an aging workforce, challenging levels of digital literacy and an education sector that, at best, is producing half the graduates we need to meet workforce demands. It’s a tough place to work, but we do it and we do it pretty well.”
Many precision ag devices and techniques developed and validated in Australia, aimed at improving resource use, sustainability and productivity – “and underpinned by good old STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)” – have been widely adopted overseas. “If you make it here, you will make it anywhere,” David said. “Conversely, if you make it over there and bring it here, you might break it here.”
David says his “innovative streak” was nurtured in his early student days at UNE. “We were left alone to do things, we were cut loose in the physics lab to do stuff, discover stuff or build stuff and you only spoke to your supervisor or demonstrator if you needed them,” he recalls. “I remember every Eureka moment I had; I generally had them on my own, because that was the environment I was allowed to work in. That sense of making personal discoveries was very empowering.”
After completing his Bachelor of Science, David did Honors and then his PhD at UNE. He left for CSU, a plasma physics graduate “big on arcs and sparks and lightning”, just when the US military was making GPS technology available to the public. It was at CSU that David got hooked on precision agriculture and all manner of opportunities soon opened up.
“It was like the wild west and I was blessed because I was at ground zero,” David said. “When I returned to UNE eight years later, the notion of SMART farming and the NBN was just on fire. The use of precision ag was dominated by crop farmers up until then – yield monitors on harvesters, soil survey technologies and satellite remote-sensing of crops – but we kicked off precision livestock management, including sensors for estimating pasture biomass, GPS livestock tracking and virtual fencing. UNE’s Kirby farm was our playground.”
The UNE SMART farm, which integrated cropping and livestock advances, was a world first under David’s leadership of the Precision Agricultural Research Group and earned him the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence in 2007. In 2016 he received the McClymont Distinguished Professorship (Research) in recognition of his ongoing service to agriculture innovation and research leadership.
While at UNE, David spent three years as the part-time science director for agriculture, natural resources and climate change in the CRC for Spatial Information, now known as FrontierSI, before moving on secondment to the Food Agility CRC four years ago. He is now responsible for a portfolio of research and development valued at almost $120 million, and urges his colleagues to reach for the stars.
“I tell people it’s okay to fail and I judge people more by their recovery from failure than their success,” David said. “I’m proud that every dollar we’ve spent on Food Agility generates about $477 worth of impact. That includes projects that have failed – there are always positive outcomes.”
Running a little cattle farm outside Armidale with his wife Jane (who recently graduated with a UNE PhD in vet parasitology) and sons Oscar (currently studying chemistry at UNE) and Liam (studying physics at UNE) keeps David’s finger on the pulse of food and fiber production. And he continues to inspire the next generation of physicists through his adjunct appointment. Every day, he says, is ripe with the promise of discovery.
“The thing about ag tech is that it’s by everyone for everyone,” David said. “The whole point of ag tech is to improve the business, sustainability and lifestyle of food production. There is so much work to do; I just wish I was a little younger and could have another crack. But what greater cause is there than to save the world and feed the planet? It’s all about putting good STEM to work. The fun is only just starting.”