Global Shortage of Semiconductor Chips Poses Challenges for Farmers to Adopt Agricultural Tech

If you’re trying to get your hands on a new car, the latest phone, or a gadget, you may have had to wait due to the global shortage of semiconductor chips.

But the tech crisis isn’t just unsettling electronics makers; it also has an impact on farmers trying to modernize their operations.

Farm-tech entrepreneur Tom Mills is developing remote monitoring systems but has had to redesign his products.

“For bespoke components, what we need to do now is basically look forward to the available chips, pre-purchase those chips, and then design our gear or refine our designs around that,” he said. .

The chip shortage comes at a difficult time, as many farmers need labor-saving technologies to address labor shortages and improve productivity.

“We’ve fallen behind because we haven’t invested in this technology to date,” Mills said.

“That’s why a lot of the automation technology you find in dairies comes from European countries, because they had to pay their staff a lot more there for a while.”

What caused the chip shortage?

Closures and the rush to work from home have caused a huge increase in sales of electronic devices.(Provided: Axonite)

Semiconductor chips are the backbone of a huge range of electronic devices, but supply has been limited since the COVID-19 outbreak.

The shutdowns sparked a boom in consumer electronics, as workers and students rushed to buy devices to help them work from home.

As demand soared, supply was hit by a severe drought in Taiwan, which crippled production of water-intensive chips by the world’s largest maker, TSMC.

The shortage could ease as the COVID disruption subsides and the United States rolls out more than $50 billion in stimulus to boost production.

Two men chat in an old sheet metal pump shed on a large family farm.
Farmer Charlie Mackinnon talks to agricultural technology supplier Tom Mills at his family farm in Longford.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

In the meantime, early adopters like Tasmanian farmer Charlie MacKinnon are already reaping the rewards of agricultural technology.

Before installing remote monitoring systems, the Longford man spent hours every day walking through his property checking every irrigator and water pump.

“And if there were any problems, go back down to turn it off, back down to the pivot to fix the problem, and back down to the pump to start it,” he said.

“And then also going to bed at night with the irrigators on, waking up in the morning to see if anything is wrong.”

Tech crunch isn’t just about chips

A proud young woman stands in a field with a wide-brimmed hat.
Agri-tech entrepreneur Fiona Turner of Bitwise Agronomy helps farmers with labor issues.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

Labor constraints in the berry and viticulture industries prompted Fiona Turner to found automated crop analysis company Bitwise.

While the software-focused startup hadn’t been hit by the chip shortage, cloud computing had been an issue.

“With power shortages and rising costs globally, this is going to have a huge impact on our cloud provider usage costs,” Ms. Turner said.

“So we are monitoring that very closely.”

James sits on a crowded agricultural tech desk, grinning as he shows off one of his gadgets.
Farm Pulse’s James Walsh says farmers are already facing delays for new machines, so they aren’t put off by the chip shortage.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

James Walsh, director of remote farming technology company Farm Pulse, said his company avoided the worst effects of shortages by not relying on a single technology or manufacturer.

But they still had to “manage expectations.”

“Anyone who is in tech and trying to source raw materials has had issues,” he said.

“But most of our customers have been very understanding because they realize there are shortages in everything right now.”

Despite the challenges, Walsh said the chip shortage has not hampered demand.

“Progressive farmers are always looking for that edge,” he said.

“With farming being so dynamic right now, people are looking for those efficiencies when things might get a little tougher, so they’re willing to spend money on technology.”

Creative solutions to the chipper challenge

In a sprawling sheet metal hangar, Andrew holds a big black drone, as tall as an arm's span.
Andrew Willoughby, director of the Technology Solutions Center at the University of Tasmania, says drones have great potential to improve the productivity of Australian farms.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

According to Andrew Willoughby, head of the technology solutions center at the University of Tasmania, those who couldn’t get their hands on technology were getting creative.

“Chips are really hard to come by and some of our students are now creating their own chips, making their own chips for use in robotics and other electrical components,” he said.

“As part of their own journey, they went further than expected.”

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