Australian scholar sets groundwork for international irrigation partnership

MSU, University of Southern Queensland building memorandum of understanding for collaboration

Michael Scobie, an irrigation researcher from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, spent the 2019 fall semester visiting Michigan State University and working on irrigation projects with Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering researchers and specialists at MSU. MSU and USQ are working on a memorandum of understanding for future collaborations.
Michael Scobie, an irrigation researcher from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, spent the 2019 fall semester visiting Michigan State University and working on irrigation projects with Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering researchers and specialists at MSU. MSU and USQ are working on a memorandum of understanding for future collaborations.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University (MSU) is developing an international irrigation and water management partnership with the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Australia, thanks in large part to Australian Ph.D. candidate Michael Scobie.

More than 9,000 miles from his home, Scobie spent the last half of 2019 at MSU developing his international project leadership skills along with the desire to formalize a partnership between the two universities.

The senior research engineer in Irrigation and Water Engineering at USQ became connected to MSU through his late mentor Steve Raine, former executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and the Environment at USQ, and MSU Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) chairperson Darrell Donahue. When Raine passed from cancer in 2018, Donahue began to mentor Scobie and invited him to spend a semester at MSU working with irrigation and water management specialists.

Michael Scobie
Scobie's irrigation work focuses on incorporating technology to assist with water usage and planning.

“I think this collaboration and spending real time at a different institution has made a world of difference for me,” Scobie said. “One of the early plans was for me to come over for a week or 10 days and just spend a little time. That would have been a benefit, but nowhere near the benefit of really being immersed here, meeting people, getting involved in projects and helping the researchers with some of the skills that I can share with them. I think it has been a really good two-way interaction between the universities.”

MSU and USQ are in the final stages of signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish future partnerships around faculty and student exchanges and collaborations on international grants and contracts, Donahue said.

“These partnerships are huge in increasing the reach of our programming,” Donahue said. “Most importantly, they help us to understand the global food system and its challenges.”

Scobie’s research is focused on mobile technology to support agricultural decision-making and comparing adoption rates between farmers in developed and developing nations. Much of his research is centered on agricultural technology adoption rates and access in southern and southeast Asia – Myanmar, Vietnam, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. He is focused on educating farmers on the benefits of using technology to improve farming and breaking down barriers to access.

“About 50 percent of my work is around digital technology and how farmers can use those tools for better water management decisions,” Scobie said. “And the other half of my work is in developing countries helping farmers improve their water management. So, I go from one end of the spectrum to the other, from very high-tech to very low-tech.”

Scobie worked with MSU irrigation specialist Steve Miller and irrigation researcher Younsuk Dong, both in the department of BAE, during his time in East Lansing.

“My time here has been very hands-on and very technical,” Scobie said. “One of the important mantras around water management is that you need to be able to make measurements to make management decisions. Just doing things by gut feel doesn't cut it in the world of precision irrigation.”

Michael Scobie in the field
Scobie has done research projects in Myanmar, Vietnam, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Dong and Miller have developed a low-cost soil moisture sensor for farmers. Scobie is helping Dong and Miller commercialize the sensor and software to eventually create an app that farmers can use to monitor fields remotely. They are currently looking for potential funding. The technology is primarily focused on Michigan and U.S. farmers, but Scobie said it is highly adaptable and relevant for farmers in developing nations.

“If we can simplify one of the tasks in the farmer’s day-to-day operation, it can be quite a practical tool,” Scobie said.

Adoption rates depend on the utility of the technology. Scobie is looking to address what technological advances will improve adoption rates in developed and developing nations.

“If we can identify what the drivers and barriers are to people deciding to use these things or not use these things, then we can design better tools,” he said.

Miller said Scobie brought a different perspective to irrigation and a unique skillset to share with Michigan farmers and MSU irrigation specialists.

Miller said Scobie’s expertise in mobile irrigation technology and apps was unique and complemented ongoing research in the department.

“Michael is coming from an arid area, much different from what we have here,” Miller said. “He got a feel for our differences and we've looked at how to adapt his tools for our applications here.”

Australia’s dry climate places a high priority on water efficiency.

“The irrigation technologies and research are quite advanced in Australia, because much of it is very dry,” Scobie said. “As a result of that, farmers have had to get very savvy when it comes to water use and being able to make the best of very limited water resources.”

Dong said Australia’s irrigation technology efforts surpass the U.S. in many cases.

“Some of the things we are just now thinking about developing, for example a smartphone app (for soil moisture monitoring), they’ve already done at USQ,” Dong said.

Scobie credits Raine for encouraging him to stick with his Ph.D. program.

“Steve was always the smartest man in the room,” Scobie said. “He had more energy and passion than anyone you ever met, and I was very fortunate that he took me under his wing and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. Even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he took me on as a Ph.D. student and mentored me. He tested my commitment and questioned why I thought it was all worth it. He was a very busy man with significant responsibility as an institute director, but he always had time for me.”

Raine also shaped the goals of the MSU-USQ collaboration.

“Steve liked Darrell’s management style and wanted me to work with him to see what I could learn,” Scobie said. “From there, discussions around collaboration and visits began. Steve died in September 2018, before Darrell and I managed to arrange anything relating to an exchange.

“I think Steve recognized that the more you see, the more you learn, and that exposure to new experience is never a bad thing. He knew that teams are a more effective way of making change and having impact and wanted each of the organizations to learn from one another.”

Donahue agrees there are opportunities for both universities.

“MSU has engineering students going to Australia, but they typically just take courses that don't apply in their major,” Donahue said. “But with USQ, we have courses that would meet the core requirements for most engineering students, so they won't have to miss out on engineering courses that are only taught once a year here.”

Donahue credits Scobie and his efforts to bring the partnership to life.

“A lot of time MOUs get signed by both parties and they end up just sitting on a shelf somewhere, but I think Michael being here and interacting with people as a representative of USQ will make the MOU feel more real to people here,” Donahue said.

Unfortunately after his six-month learning experience at MSU, Scobie returned home in January to a country facing a severe national disaster. Australian bush fires burned across more than 45 million acres of land, claiming the lives of more than 30 people and as many as one billion animals. The fires came at a time of record drought across the country.

“While we have bushfire season each year, usually just before cyclone season, this (year) was unprecedented,” Scobie said. “We drove from the airport out to our farm in smoke, haze and heat. Our valley has not been directly impacted by the fires, but the landscape is screaming. It is hot and dry and windy. The perfect conditions for bushfires. We have a fire fighting pump connected to our swimming pool – just in case.”

The fires have since been contained, but the impact will last for generations.

Scobie plans to continue his research and outreach programs in southern Asia as he works to complete his Ph.D. Donahue said seeing Scobie finish his program -- expected in 2022 -- will be fulfilling, especially as a member of his doctoral committee.

“It will mean quite a lot to see (Scobie’s Ph.D.) come to fruition like Steve wanted it to,” he said. “I've gained a lot of respect for Michael. He has really good ideas, and he has gained a lot of confidence in his abilities. His irrigation collaborators at MSU have all told me that they have learned a lot from him, particularly how to improve their approach to irrigation research and outreach.”

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