Ruling the AgTech roost

Meet the UQ graduate who flew the farming coop, only to return with a whole new approach to agriculture.

Rear view of farmer in field at sunset.

Image: Budimir Jevtic/Adobe Stock

Image: Budimir Jevtic/Adobe Stock

Regional Roadshow

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed some of UQ’s Regional Roadshow plans for Toowoomba, Contact is still bringing you stories from our graduates in the region.

UQ graduate Thomas Hall (Master of Business Administration ’18) began his working life as a 10-year-old in the back of his family’s egg trucks as they ferried produce from their farm to Brisbane.

He grew up surrounded by agriculture – his family had been in the industry for generations and he knew its challenges and lifestyle better than most.

“We’ve been involved in many different sectors of agriculture – mainly poultry and broadacre crops, but also meat and livestock,” he told Contact.

“When you’re in the agricultural game, you tend to try your hand at a few things.”

In the 1990s in Brisbane, just behind where the Normanby Hotel is, was the Queensland Egg Board. Hall recalled how every week, egg farmers from across Queensland would arrive to drop off their eggs to be weighed, sorted and distributed.

“That’s actually how I’d get to and from town – in the egg trucks,” Hall said. 

Maremma sheepdogs guarding chickens at the Hall family property

Maremma sheepdogs guarding chickens at the Hall family property. Image: Thomas Hall

Maremma sheepdogs guarding chickens at the Hall family property. Image: Thomas Hall

Hoping to broaden his horizons from his upbringing in agriculture, Hall started his career in aviation, working first on rural stations for a few years before he got a stint flying for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).

“The RFDS was probably one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Hall said.

“To know at the end of the day you’ve made a difference in someone’s life – that’s an amazing feeling.”

Hall spent the next eight or so years flying, but no matter how far away he went, the agriculture sector – and the Darling Downs – always felt like home.

So while he loved flying, in 2016, Hall felt it was time for a career change.

He returned to his roots in the agriculture industry, working for his family on their farm.

He also enrolled in a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at UQ to upskill as he decided what he wanted to do next.

While doing his MBA, Hall was offered the opportunity to participate in an immersion tour of the agri-food sector in the Netherlands, a world-leading country in innovative technology application in agriculture.

“We toured some amazing organisations – they had incredibly disruptive technologies and systems,” Hall said.

“The collaboration – be it in programs, education, facilities – worked across all levels of industry and government, and that was something to be admired.

"They were changing the sector, even the world.

“I wanted to take the learnings from that visit back home and help support the transition of Australian agriculture.”

The Hall family farm at sunset. Image: Thomas Hall

A farm at sunset. A barbed wire fence cuts across a paddock full of long grass as the sun sets along the horizon.

Joining Hall on the tour was Grant Statton, Chief Executive Officer of AATLIS, a Toowoomba-based hub committed to collaboratively solving challenges facing the agriculture and food sectors across technology, advanced manufacturing, energy and food processing.

“While we were in the Netherlands, we talked about the types of amazing initiatives and programs we could deploy back in Australia,” Hall said.

“We were building the precinct of the future.”

When Hall returned to Australia, he was soon offered the opportunity to work with the AATLIS team and transition his career into the innovation and agricultural technology space.

For Hall, it was an easy decision to make his way back to the proverbial hearth.

Continuing his work with the AATLIS Precinct, Hall is now the Chief Executive Officer of its technology and innovation campus – AgriFood Connect.

An image of Thomas Hall (fourth from the left) participated in the Agtech and Logsticis Hub Meet Up in March 2021.

Thomas Hall (fourth from the left) participated in the Agtech and Logsticis Hub Meet Up in March 2021. Image: TSBE

Thomas Hall (fourth from the left) participated in the Agtech and Logsticis Hub Meet Up in March 2021. Image: TSBE

AgriFood Connect is a national organisation connecting the entire agri-food supply chain, with the goal of ensuring science and technology translate seamlessly to industry.

This is achieved through collaborating with academia, governments, investors, corporations and startups, nurturing intelligent connections and delivering smart solutions for industry.

Hall said while technology offers huge opportunities for the agricultural industries, more education is needed to drive uptake.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a resistance to technology, but a lack of understanding, which fuels the lack of adoption,” Hall said.

“If you want someone to adopt new technology or research, that person needs to weigh up all the different risks and expenditure before they can make an informed decision.

“They need to know how it will impact their workflow, workforce, what the return on investment would be, how it would be adopted – this is where short courses and training are critical.”

The AATLIS Precinct is hoping to offer this educational experience through facilities like a 5G Internet of Things (IoT) edge computing lab (funded by Telstra), a UQ cybersecurity training centre, and a ‘smart farm’, where the latest tech can be displayed in action.

“The innovation campus will be an open collaborative facility where everyone can interact, understand and learn – we want to showcase the latest in technology and products to help companies commercialise and scale.”

“That’s what’s going to change people’s minds – if you can actually see the results.”

The AATLIS team are working to drive sustainability and innovation for businesses in the Toowoomba and Darling Downs regions. Video: AATLIS

Hall and his team are also working with UQ on an Australian Research Council Linkage grant focused on the development of advanced technologies and digital simulations to fast-track the optimisation of environmentally controlled protected cropping systems for established and new high-value crops.

“Utilising digital simulations based on forecasted growth and production data, we are able to provide optimised production conditions for yield and water usage,” Hall said.

“By having the information, the grower is then able to make an informed decision: if they invest $5 million into the asset, they know they have a four- or five-year payback based on predicted yield, water and nutrient data.”

Image credit: Adobe Stock /artiemedvedev

A man stands in a farm of wheat, holding wheat in one hand and using an ipad with the other.

Hall says AgTech is an enormously exciting field to be in – even in his own lifetime, he’s witnessed huge changes in the way the industry operates.

“When I was young, I was hand-picking the warm eggs that had just been laid,” Hall said.

“Now, I walk into an operation and it’s fully autonomous, with infrared crack scanners, chip detectors and more.

“Looking forward to the next five to 10 years, I think we’ll see a huge increase in the use of data sets, additive manufacturing, automation, robots and integrated supply chains.”

“It’s such an exciting time to be in agribusiness as there’s a real desire for collaboration. Agriculture as an industry is very innovative by its nature, and people are starting to realise with all the advances in science and technology, it’s a major sector that’s untapped.

“I think it's going to be an amazing next decade for the industry.”

UQ's Regional Roadshow covers Toowoomba, the Gold Coast, Maryborough and the Sunshine Coast