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Bartle Frere Bananas, an award-winning Queensland banana farm that supplies fruit to the nation’s biggest supermarkets, showcased its smart farm technology on the world stage earlier this month at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

The Bartle Frere Bananas case study featured in Hitachi’s COP26 presentation, Technology and Data Are Key to Save the Environment to demonstrate how artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and sensor technology can support sustainable food production.  

It’s all part of a project with Hitachi Vantara Australia, which has allowed the Queensland farm to establish the best and most efficient farming practices that improve productivity, reduce costs and minimise environmental impact. 

It includes everything from weather monitoring stations and a supply chain control tower to sensors that monitor soil moisture and nitrate levels. 

“We’ve now got the real-time, advanced sensing, leachate monitoring, sediment analysis and data capture in place to predict and prescribe actionable insights based on data algorithms we have helped design. These insights guide our best management practices around irrigation, fertilisation and plant care,” said Bartle Frere Bananas owner and managing director Gavin Devaney.

The technology means that Devaney can test the efficiency of different practices much more quickly than before. 

“The technology allows us to prove if a [particular] practice is a better way to go. And in real time, you don’t have a big lagging period where you make a change, and don’t know whether it has been efficient or not,” he said. 

Product traceability

According to the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, the humble banana is the top selling supermarket product in Australia, outselling not only every other fruit and vegetable but every other supermarket line.

And with consumers becoming increasingly interested in the source and the journey behind their fresh produce, Devaney wanted to find a way to track information about each banana. 

A supply-chain tracking system featuring GPS and [radio frequency identification] RFID tags on banana plants and pallets allows Devaney to provide data-driven transparency that he believes is critical to sustainable farming.  

“There’s a number of practices that we have to do to treat each bunch of bananas. We’re able to use GPS to locate the bunches that have been treated so that the bagging machine operator can easily find them,” Devaney explained. 

Meanwhile, the RFID tag monitors everything that happens in the paddock.

“It’s [similar to tracking of] livestock; consumers want to know what happened to their meat before they eat it,” Devaney said. 

““We [can offer] transparency of the consumer’s product all the way through to the plate or the fruit bowl.”

Hitachi’s Lumada manufacturing insights and supply chain control tower use AI modelling, predictive analytics and prescriptive insights, delivered to the farmer by reports, to help predict when fruit will reach maturity, determine the ideal amount of water to use, and reduce the number of pesticides.

Social innovation 

Bartle Frere Bananas, which recently received the Future Farming Award at the 2021 Australian Banana Industry Congress, is one of four trial sites to use the technology. The project will inform the broader horticulture sector about the effectiveness of data analytics for monitoring environmental impact. 

“Every organisation and industry sector has the potential to deliver data-driven outcomes that can effectively address social and environmental issues,” said Hitachi Vantara CEO Gajen Kandiah. 

“The smart, sustainable farming operation at Bartle Frere Bananas was designed to deliver a better banana that conserves and protects the surrounding environment. It is a fine example of using the power of data and technology to deliver social innovation, for which we advocate, and we are proud to be a part of it.” 

The entire solution is managed by Hitachi Lumada Manufacturing Insights, and funded by the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program and Hort Innovation, with co-investment from Applied Horticultural Research, the Australian Banana Grower’s Council (AGBC), AusVeg, Freshcare, Greenlife Industry Australia, Growcom, Hitachi Australia Pty Ltd and Hitachi Vantara LLC. 

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