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Oz to Oz: Australians see opportunities for partnerships in Kansas

A group of Australian business and academic leaders visiting Kansas State University on March 28 said they are excited about opportunities for working together with their American counterparts.

Their focus was on agricultural technology, and throughout the day-long meeting with K-State faculty and members of the Kansas agricultural industry, they discovered numerous areas where the two countries could share expertise.

“K-State has a great reputation in a whole lot of areas of agriculture, so it’s great for someone like myself to be here in person to speak with some of the researchers and faculty, understand what they’re working on, understand the potential fit, and the potential to collaborate in the future,” said Liam Ryan, manager of transformational technologies for the Grains Research and Development Corporation, which has its headquarters in Canberra.

The group is on a two-week visit to U.S. companies, beginning mid-March in California’s Silicon Valley. Kansas State is the only university they will visit during their trip.

“On the west coast, they’re learning about the Silicon Valley and the glamor of agricultural technology there, but they have never been to where technology meets the farm,” said Cassandra Keener, the investment director for the Australian Trade and Investment Commission in Chicago, which organized the trip.

“So we brought them to the Midwest where they can learn how technology gets to the farm (in the U.S.), if their technology is usable and how they can get into the supply chain for companies such as Bayer, John Deere and Corteva Agriscience, all of which we are visiting.”

K-State has a history of working with Australian professionals, largely through the Oz to Oz program established more than 15 years ago. Plant pathology professor John Leslie, who helped to organize the March meeting, said agriculture is a natural area for developing partnerships.

“Our university’s strengths match up well with Australia,” Leslie said. “We both have a lot of wheat, a lot of cows, a lot of rural areas and we both have challenges with heat, drought and water.”

He adds: “Our goal is to identify people on the K-State campus who could potentially collaborate with each of these different companies to build our interactions with Australia. It’s really one of the payoffs that’s coming from our Australia initiative because most of these folks have heard of K-State, and they’ve heard of K-State agriculture and extension. They want to know how things that we do might match with what they’re interested in.”

Josh Rowe, the vice president for market development with the Kansas Corn Commission, saw a direct benefit for Kansas agriculture.

“Australians certainly have had similar challenges, whether that be water, marketing, climate, and more,” Rowe said. “This meeting gives us an opportunity to look at how they’ve overcome it and how their industry has risen to meet those challenges.”

As an example, Rob Brooks, general manager for Aware Water in Melbourne, said Australians “grapple with water” just like folks in Kansas do.

“And there is a lot that countries and states can learn from each other around water management and technologies to build sustainability in water, for agriculture and the environment,” he said.

Cameron Leeson is the chief executive officer for Think Robotics, an Australian startup company that is testing the global interest in using robots for many on-farm jobs. He said his company has spent the last six months in China working on prototypes.

“We are very interested in the U.S. market where our prototypes and our production machines might have value here,” Leeson said.

“Ultimately what we are looking at is a labor replacement unit. We hear time and again from farmers that labor is their biggest challenge so we are essentially building our on-demand work force of robots. We are looking at trained machines that can be there when you need them.”

Leeson said he believes the global agricultural industry will be receptive to robots because fewer people are willing to take on farm labor.

“That’s a big problem even for less developed countries where you might naturally assume that cost of labor is not a problem,” Leeson said. “But the access to labor and the skill set is a very big problem for them too. So it very much is a global market.”

Ernie Minton, the interim dean of the College of Agriculture at K-State, says it benefits the university and the state to make international connections.

“We have a global reach, and our interactions with Australia have matured over the last seven or eight years,” he said. “So it makes sense for us to think about things related to innovation and how they ultimately relate to trade and interactions between the two countries.”

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