A two-year hiatus for Australia’s biggest agricultural event – AgQuip Field Days – has shown the country is getting greener. And, AgQuip general manager Kate Nugent says, it’s not just because the last time the event was held, regional Australia was in the grip of a crippling drought.
AgQuip is usually an annual feature in Gunnedah, in north-west New South Wales, and attracts 3000 exhibitors and about 100,000 people over three days.
COVID-19 restrictions forced the event’s cancellation in 2020 and 2021, and revealed a new and significant trend.
“This is the point of difference from 2018 and 2019,” Nugent says. “Apart from the fact that they were very dry years and we are now into more buoyant years, we have a higher number of agritech businesses working with sustainability, with the environment and with climate change.
“We have a high number of solar companies and other renewable energy companies exhibiting. That has escalated.”
Nugent says during this year’s event, held August 16–18, there were $155 million worth of goods and services on the 26-hectare dedicated AgQuip site, including everything from massive agricultural machinery through to bamboo socks, schools and mental health services.
“We have got our national companies, small to medium-sized businesses, and a percentage of start-up companies that fit within this realm of renewables who are looking for investment,” she says.
“They have identified the opportunity of selling to farmers, and to the other businesses on site. A number of exhibitors are meeting with each other. We also have an Argentinian delegation meeting with our Australian manufacturers.
“They know this is the meeting place of rural Australia.”
Among the exhibitors were the Clean Energy Regulator, solar suppliers, electric off-road bike suppliers, Energy Conservation, off-grid system suppliers and Farmers for Climate Change.
Even the National Australia Bank site sported a client’s electric vehicle on display.
RFI Technology Solutions national sales manager Ammeron Cleary says RFI has been exhibiting at AgQuip for 15 years, and has witnessed a renewable energy transition in farmers.
“When we were first kicking off, everyone was interested in getting solar and putting it on their roof,” Cleary says. “Now, they have had solar for 10 years and they are interested in batteries.”
But Cleary says the greatest change in direction this year at AgQuip was the move towards an off-grid solar solution. The RFI stand included an SMA Solar Technology EV charger charging a Tesla Model 3 car, backed by batteries.
The display sparked a wave of interest in people Cleary says were getting ready to build in rural areas and were facing tens of thousands of dollars to have electricity connected. Many were looking at the possibility of an off-grid solar system instead.
“With the recent cost rises and unreliability in electricity, we are at the tipping point, particularly in regional areas,” he says.
Farmers for Climate Action community outreach officer Peter Holding says AgQuip saw an increase in membership, although the recent change of federal government had come with unexpected results across the country.
“The change of government had a perverse reaction,” he says. “Many people felt the debate was over. It’s not, it’s just beginning.”
Holding says part of the organisation’s role is to explain that farmers are not the problem. Farmers are, he says, already doing the right thing in adopting climate-friendly practices that are more efficient.
“Many farmers are realising net zero now,” he says. “But we need to be in the room with decision makers having these discussions and not running away.”
One of Farmers for Climate Action’s AgQuip messages – written on a board at their stand – was a call for farmers to have their say about a national strategy on agriculture and climate change, something Holding says the organisation has been calling for over a number of years.
He says the need for clear direction from the federal government for Australian farmers is critical.
“We have 30 days of diesel supply in this country,” Holding says. “We have just seen what happens when there are fuel shortages.
“Can you imagine if we run out of diesel in this country? Every header, every harvester, every piece of machinery will stop. And if it happens at the wrong time, crops might not get planted.
“We need to get a lot of thinking done. What direction are we going in? Is it going to be EDs? Hydrogen? Ammonia? That hasn’t been decided.
“Most farms have multi-million dollars’ worth of machinery and can’t afford to make a mistake with what they buy and have to sail it off a cliff because they can’t buy parts or fuel.”
He says renewable energy is “one of the only things to turn around the regional decline”, with regionally based energy generation providing jobs and industry, and community-level solutions for renewable energy ensuring the money stays within the regional area.
AgQuip, with its historical reputation for giant, diesel-fired machinery exhibits, could prove a litmus test for the country’s farming future.
Marie Low has been a journalist and communications advisor for more than 30 years. She has also worked as a media advisor to state government ministers, headed a government media department and worked within a well-regarded metropolitan communications consultancy as a senior consultant. Her family tree change brought her to Tenterfield and then Gunnedah where she now is one half of Two Cats Creative.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.
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