SUNITAFE’s SMART Farm is going from strength to strength.

With plans to upgrade the infrastructure at its Irymple site, the institution is in the process of seeking a $10 million grant from the State Government.

During the week, the Reason Party’s leader Fiona Patten and her Coalition partner, Mildura MP Ali Cupper toured the farm with SuniTAFE CEO Geoff Dea.

One of the highlights of the visit was the opportunity to see some of the high-tech equipment that is increasingly becoming an integral part of modern agriculture.

The SMART Farm’s manager, Warren Lloyd, demonstrated some of the features of the farmbot ‘Dragon’, which is an autonomous robot vehicle which is capable of independently travelling out onto the farm to do a variety of tasks, including spraying weeds, and when its work is done, it will return to its garage and retire for the night.

Mr Lloyd said that the company that builds the farmbots in Sydney has produced four of them, which are deployed in Victoria at a number of farms.

“They have one working at Bacchus Marsh and one in Werribee and another in Swan Hill, and at our farm,” Mr Lloyd said.

“The machine can be adapted to negotiate high rows and low clearance and we are helping the company to develop the processes in regard to how it can be used and the different applications it can undertake.
“At the moment its primary function is to collect data on the growth of plants and it also has the ability to undertake mechanical weeding.”

SuniTAFE CEO Geoff Dea said that the machine has attracted a lot of interest from other educational institutions.

“We have Wodonga TAFE here this week, coming specifically to have a look at this vehicle and the principal of Horsham High School is also visiting to see what we are doing on the farm in terms of agriculture and they are located near Longerenong Agricultural College with their dryland farming and so they are coming to see our irrigated crops,” Mr Dea said.

“Craig Robertson, who is the CEO of TAFE Directors Australia, wants to come have a look the Dragon and the SMART Farm, as does Jeremy Irvine, CEO of the Victorian TAFE Association.
“There is genuine interest in what we are doing here on this farm.”

Mr Dea said that SuniTAFE has been strongly advocating for the future of the SMART Farm and are seeking to acquire a $10 million grant to do the work they know is needed to take the next step with the farm.

“That money will go toward two things. Firstly a general upgrade of the training facilities here – improvement to our teaching and staff amenities , adding a demonstration hub and conference centre that can be utilised by local agricultural peak bodies,” Mr Dea said.

The second part of the money would go to upgrading infrastructure on the farm, including new plantings complimenting the economic crops which are here at the moment, but we also see an opportunity for research and development of experimental crops and industrial hemp is a crop that we are trialling at the moment.

“We have also done significant work with high density olives and almonds and dates and so a lot of the funding will go toward the refurbishment of infrastructure related to those plantings.
“And all of this needs to be supported by the digital future and we have just been looking at the ‘farmbot’ and this highlights the IT and the digital capacity we need to train people into a career in horticulture into the future which is critical and this funding will allow for this expansion.”

Ms Cupper said that she and the Reason Party have been communicating to the government the importance of the funding for the SMART Farm.

“The $10 million towards this project would be $10 million very well spent by our government and we know that our region contributes more than $3 billion dollars a year to the economy,” she said.

“As a region we punch above our weight, as does SuniTAFE within the TAFE sector, but also in its absolute willingness to be at the cutting edge of new crops and techniques -it is really exciting to see.
“The Skills Commissioner identified that a lack of trained people could potentially hold our region back, and so this is the business of SuniTAFE to fill that gap in the workforce and that $10 million would be incredibly well utilised here and we are calling on the government to fund it.”