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Personnel Image

Written By

Tianna Killoran

College

College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

11 May 2022

Sowing the seeds of innovation

With a career that has grown and changed with her over the years, JCU Alumni Jennifer McKee once found herself lending a helping hand to farmers consulting on their reporting and recordkeeping. Soon after, Jennifer decided to make her mark and provide a one-stop-shop for farmers' forms with an innovative app called Grower Support.

Graduating in 2007, Jennifer studied a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Environmental Management at JCU. At first, she wasn’t quite sure of her career direction. “The six months after graduating, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was mostly working and packing bananas in Innisfail, where I grew up, until my sister gave me a bit of a push to go out and use my degree,” Jennifer says.

“I ended up getting a job working for the Department of Natural Resources and Water in their water management unit. I found myself in a very unexpected career path, managing riverine quarry materials, and other water management work,” she says.

Working in that role for 13 years, Jennifer says that particular career path brought her a lot of enjoyment. “It was nothing like anything I had envisioned for myself, but I really loved it and it had such a great variety of field work and really technical work for me to do,” she says.

“We would calculate, for example, the volumes of resources we could provide to people and assessing it against criteria set by legislation. We would need to assess the condition of the watercourses for these permits to ensure the integrity of the watercourses weren’t harmed.”

But after going on maternity leave and then looking to return to work, Jennifer found herself wanting a different experience. “I had a friend suggest to me that I could do some consultancy work helping farmers to understand their best practice management and requirements, including navigating new legislation,” she says.

Having grown up in Innisfail in Far North Queensland, Jennifer says farming had always been a part of her life. “So, I ended up doing some consultancy for farmers in the banana industry and helping people with their records.”

JCU Alumni and Grower Support Founder, Jennifer McKee.

Supplied by Jennifer McKee.

Supporting growers with Grower Support

While she was working with farmers, Jennifer says that a lot of them expressed frustration at managing the mountains of paperwork that come with operating a farm. “A few of them mentioned to me how much of a pain it is to manage all of this paperwork so they can demonstrate their compliance. So, I wanted to find a better solution for them,” Jennifer says.

“Although everything we do these days is on your phone or online, I did some research and couldn’t find any basic tools that would enable farmers to manage these requirements in a more streamlined way. So, instead I researched how much it would cost to build an app, contacted a developer, and started building my own app,” she says. In under a year, Jennifer had created Grower Support.

“Grower Support is a compliance management software platform,” Jennifer explains. “It is a progressive web app, which means it behaves as it needs to on any device, whether a person is using a phone, tablet or a desktop computer. There’s the admin dashboard, so the farm business can manage their records, but also includes inventory management, and tools needed to prepare for annual audits. Farmers are able to keep all of their records in one location and they don’t need to rely on different storage solutions.”

Jennifer says the process of developing an app was a steep, but rewarding, learning curve. “I consider myself fairly tech-savvy, but I don’t have a software development background. So, I worked closely with a software development company based in South Australia and their project manager,” she says. “We laid out a plan for the app and then the idea morphed as the project evolved; it was really a collaborative effort between myself and the software developer.”

The end result was something that could save farmers a lot of time and stress.

“For these farmers, it was very taxing to use a paper-based system for reporting. It took so much valuable time away from them,” Jennifer says. “With the rising price of fertiliser and fuel, farms are finding things very tight. If Grower Support can save them even a little bit of time, that makes a big difference.”

“If a farmer is using paper reporting for 13 hours in a week, Grower Support can reduce that by 8 hours. So, it’s really exciting that we have innovated something that will streamline their compliance management systems and get them digitalised.”

JCU Alumni and Grower Support Founder Jennifer McKee

Farmer with a blue and red check shirt holds a tablet while looking out over a farm.
JCU Alumni Jennifer McKee smiling while holding a tablet with the Grower Support interface.
Right: Jennifer McKee with the Grower Support platform. Supplied by Jennifer McKee.

Cultivating a career in agriculture

Although Jennifer comes from a public service background, she said that jumping into the agricultural industry has been an exciting and positive experience. “I have found myself reaching out to so many different people, wanting to build networks with professionals and the community,” she says.

“Everyone’s time is extremely valuable but they are very willing to connect and provide support, or connect you to someone else who is able to. It’s a very welcoming and collaborative environment.”

Jennifer says the wide variety of people she’s worked with highlights the career diversity that is available in the agricultural industry. “In the time I’ve been consulting and running Grower Support, I’ve spoken to so many different people and professionals: people who have a PhD, podcasters, lawyers, software developers and farmers of course.”

“All of this variety means that the agricultural industry needs a whole range of people to support it. People with qualifications in environmental policy, planning, technology, law and marketing. You can have a degree in nearly anything and be able to apply it to the agricultural industry and be able to work with really great people,” Jennifer says.

Jennifer emphasises that there are many different ways people can forge a career in the agricultural industry, with innovations like hers being just one of many.

“We think about the next generation and are often told that, as parents, we have to prepare them for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” she says. “Who would have thought 20 years ago that agriculture would need artificial intelligence and robotics? It’s just amazing how you can take so many of those futuristic and innovative ideas and apply them to this industry.”

“There’s just so many exciting opportunities within the industry for people to get involved in,” Jennifer says. Whether people are monitoring 70,000 head of cattle from thousands of kilometres away, remotely checking water levels or using cameras to monitor farms, Jennifer says the agricultural industry in Australia is flourishing with opportunities.

In terms of her own innovation, Jennifer says she hopes to grow Grower Support in the future and support many different types of farmers, both in Australia and abroad. “We’re hoping to involve people in the wider agriculture industry, including prawn and bee farmers, and really broadly to all types of agriculture. It’s really exciting to look ahead to the future.”

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