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NorVicFoods calls agrifood businesses to help solve industry-wide challenges

In an Australian first, a dynamic partnership has been formed between the Victorian government, the University of Melbourne and agritech leader, Sensand Technologies to deliver innovative ideas for agrifood in Victoria’s Hume region.

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Words by Judy Kennedy

Renowned as one of Australia’s most productive food bowls, the Goulburn Valley is abundantly rich in produce and teeming with innovation opportunities set to benefit a range of agrifood businesses.

The second Expressions of Interest (EOI) round is underway as part of the $4.7 million NorVicFoods Agrifood Innovation Cluster project – funded in part by the Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund – and designed to strengthen the agrifood innovation system in the Hume region and the connection of university graduates to agriculture.

NorVicFoods Executive Manager, Lisa Birrell said it offers a different model for Australian agriculture by acting as a gateway for collaboration between university and business, as well as business to business. The project is expected to create 87 jobs in the Hume region, in addition to supporting 30 student internships and six PhD students.

“It’s about the agrifood industry in the Hume region coming to us to have a conversation about their challenges and options for innovation and growth, and linking in with the expertise of interns who may be Masters students in engineering, commerce, food or ag science,” explained Lisa.

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“They can come up to northern Victoria, engage with stakeholders and grow their understanding of the real-world challenges that businesses face, and see how it all fits together. It would be great if business could then employ these students and strengthen the agricultural knowledge and experience within the higher education sector.”

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Ripe timing for agricultural innovation

Lisa said the timing is ripe for NorVicFoods to build custom solutions for businesses around one or a combination of research, development, extension, technology transfer and targeted training in the dairy, horticulture, livestock and food manufacturing industries that lead the region.

“People don’t always realise that farmers are some of the biggest innovators and adopters of technology. The Goulburn Valley is one of Australia’s major food bowls and we’ve seen businesses here evolve, adapt and grow through the pandemic, the Millennial drought, bushfires, labour shortages and milk price drops ­– and some need help with the next step,” Lisa said. 

“We’ll be looking at things like economic feasibility studies around expansion, pros and cons and return on investment, or at different technologies around food or feed traceability, and the fruit harvest and technology to estimate yield well before harvest to ensure you have enough labour, storage and market access.”

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Driving efficiencies across the supply chain, from the farm gate to the consumer, is a top priority and the NorVicFoods venture presents a unique opportunity for agrifood businesses to participate in the ideation and problem solving of key industry challenges – with a range of expertise and capabilities to tap into. The second EOI round opens Wednesday, 9 March 2022. Submit applications here.

“Re-designing of packing sheds and automating jobs or using robotics from other industries that can streamline processes and make packaging sustainable,” Lisa added, are all potential areas seeking solutions to continue driving economic value across the supply chain.  

“Logistics is obviously another area and the different use of waste streams within industries – ‘Is there a value-add there, and could it be an input to some other industry?’”

“Or it may just be scoping – what is there globally that businesses don’t have access to or the time to research? And maybe that conversation and the expertise or interest of the student takes us on a second question to find a solution. You don’t know until you deep dive and that’s really exciting – that cross pollination of ideas.”

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Industry-wide collaboration approach set to maximise business outcomes

Sensand Technologies is a key partner in the NorVicFoods program, providing support on digital solutions, and its Executive Chairman and Co-Founder Davi La Ferla said innovations to rejuvenate the region won’t simply be a matter of ‘pushing some tech’.

“Sensand is able to provide actionable insights and we’re approaching this project from a market pull perspective rather than one based on tech push. We’re far more interested in having a human-centred, tech-enabled approach to solving problems and challenges that are first understood,” explained Davi.

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“Innovations will recognise the way the Goulburn Valley operates today as one of Australia’s most significant food bowls and the way it’s likely to operate in the future, particularly in terms of adaptation and resilience to climate change.

“Where technology is involved, it’ll be integrated with existing and emerging systems and processes. And the solutions won’t be sandboxed or isolated, they will be integrated and co-created by a range of operators across the valley.” 

Davi said the initiative is a first for Australia and could be replicated across the country.

“The initiative has been co-designed by Sensand, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian government to bring together disparate stakeholders across a region and enable them to collectively understand significant problems, and to co-create tech and non-tech solutions that will provide a lasting legacy.

“I see that as being readily replicated or adopted by other states particularly when we're talking about other significant food bowls, like the Murrumbidgee region in New South Wales or the Riverland in South Australia. Our team is excited to pursue the opportunity to enhance meaningful connections across the Goulburn Valley and between this valley and other major agrifood hubs!”

The second EOI round for the NorVicFoods project closes December 2022. Submit applications here

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