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Artificial intelligence eyed for scholar’s study

Katrina Swift will research artificial intelligence through her 2024 GrainCorp Nuffield Scholarship.
Photo: Nicole Baxter

Grower and agronomist Katrina ‘Treen’ Swift will research artificial intelligence applications and what they could offer grain-growing businesses in Australia.

Treen farms about 4000 hectares of dryland with her husband Mark, brother Bruce Watson, sister-in-law Karina Watson, parents Jim and Janelle Watson and a talented farm team south of Parkes, in central New South Wales.

The 42-year-old attended the University of Sydney and Marcus Oldham College before returning to work on the family farm.

While her husband Mark was studying at Marcus Oldham College, she took a position with the National Australia Bank (NAB) at Albury. She then transferred to work in agribusiness in Orange, Forbes and Sydney.

When her brother Bruce was awarded his Nuffield Scholarship, she took a career break to cover for him by working on the farm. After he returned, she had another stint working for NAB, but when her first child, Peggy, was born she returned to the farm.

For the past 15 years, she has worked with the NSW Wheat Research Foundation as an executive assistant and now executive officer.

“The NSW Wheat Research Foundation, GRDC, Australian Grain Technologies and the University of Sydney invested $15.2 million to build the International Centre of Crop and Digital Agriculture at Narrabri,” Treen says.

“We wanted to decentralise jobs out of Sydney, provide greater long-term career opportunities at Narrabri and build labs for robotics to advance research into digital agriculture and heat-tolerant crops.”

Katrina focuses on summer crop agronomy on her family's farm, checking crops twice weekly to ensure they are pest and disease-free. She says she has learned plenty from attending the summer grains and cotton conferences.

Nuffield Scholarship

With her brother Bruce and husband Mark, both Nuffield Scholars, Treen feels fortunate to know the benefits of global study.

After looking at professional development courses that would equip her with practical skills for the family’s grains business, she felt a Nuffield Scholarship would provide the personal and industry growth she sought.

“Mark encouraged me to attend the 2023 Nuffield Triennial Conference with him in New Zealand,” she says. “It was so much fun to visit world-class operations in another country, and it was so inspiring.”

The travel helped her see the value of Nuffield’s global network of more than 2000 scholars.

Accordingly, she decided to see whether she could become a Nuffield Scholar. She was delighted when GrainCorp offered to support her two-year international study.

“I had been working with drones within our own farming business, and I came home from the New Zealand trip and started looking into artificial intelligence,” she says. “I’m not a computer programmer, but I like technology.”

She could find forums for teachers. However, there was nothing for those working in agriculture.

AI and bees

An article in her daughter’s science magazine sparked her interest in how Dutch scientists used pheromones, cameras and AI to identify and track the movement of bees in paddocks.

“I thought that would give us some accountability when somebody asks us about the size of our native insect population,” she says. “We don’t have the resources to answer that, but AI will provide that capacity.”

Other ways AI could benefit the grains business, she says, include green-on-green and green-on-brown spot spraying.

As part of her Nuffield Scholarship, Treen wants to explore how other industries use AI. These include the medical and military sectors.

“We’ve also heard about people using AI for wheat variety analysis,” she says.

“Could we use AI to measure the falling number of grains so that it is a quantitative analysis rather than something that can vary so much from sample to sample?”

Treen will travel to the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, the US, Canada, and Japan – and within Australia – to research AI.

“I’d like to visit Microsoft in Seattle and the US military and space programs,” she says.

“Now, we need one person to operate each machine on our farm, but in the future, one person could oversee a cluster of small machines that will do the work with sensors without causing compaction.”

More information: Katrina Swift,

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