Nicky Mann, Protected Crop Australia: “Australia's protected crop industry is at an extremely exciting time”

Australia's protected crop industry is at an extremely exciting time in its history, says Nicky Mann. As chair of the board of Protected Cropping Australia and one of the administrators of Family Fresh Farms, she lives and breathes horticulture every day of her life. In recent years, you have seen the industry grow and professionalize. Protecting their crops, whether from massive weather events or from pests and diseases, has a high priority for growers in helping them serve the rapidly growing market.

Greenhouse crops

Over the past five years, the Australian horticultural industry has experienced rapid growth in many sectors. “Producers of many horticultural products are considering some type of protection on, around or under their crops, such as nets, hydroponics, the use of substrates, plastic tunnels, retractable greenhouses, multi-span greenhouses, high-tech greenhouses or even indoor vertical farms. There is already a farm in New South Wales that grows avocados in retractable greenhouses, ”says Nicky.

Especially soft fruits such as blueberries and raspberries, almonds, avocados, citrus fruits and greenhouse crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants have increased in production, especially snack tomatoes, snack cucumbers and snack peppers. “But there are also ginger, turmeric, dragon fruit, figs, cherries and many other horticultural crops that were traditionally grown outdoors under nets, plastic covers, etc. and therefore tissue culture, propagators and young plant nurseries had to grow accordingly and became much more sophisticated and mechanized."

Additionally, there has been an increase in medical cannabis production in Australia, "and during COVID, the garden and nursery industry, including flower production, literally blossomed in growth, which is surprising after many years of hard trading in this sector.

Fresh produce market

According to Nicky, there are multiple causes for growth. “Consumers are definitely more aware of the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the incredible increase in consumption of products like blueberries, avocados and almonds was a direct result of health benefits marketing campaigns.” of these particular products. Consumers just went crazy for blueberries especially, so everyone rushed to plant blueberries, especially under tunnels and in substrates to harvest crops faster to meet the growing demand for this high-antioxidant fruit, which was also generating incredible profits for producers. However, blueberry supply has greatly improved in Australia and prices have dropped, so growers now need to be more efficient and take their growth and viability to new heights.”

He adds that Australia's market is a little behind Europe, "but there is a push for more fresh fruits and vegetables to be added for greater consumer convenience, and there is a greater focus on healthy, tasty and easy-to-prepare snacks." ». salads and meals with fresh products. However, the vast size of our country also adds a layer of complexity, as transportation distances are enormous and getting products to markets and/or consumers can sometimes take days to arrive, so variety selection To cultivate you must take this into account. »

Australia has also focused on exporting to nearby Asia over the past 5 years. “With large populations becoming rich on our doorstep, there are many opportunities for Australia and New Zealand. In fact, a lot of work has been done to ensure that we are producing the types of products that those countries and their consumers want and need. »

Get the most out of your cultivation

With the market growing, growers want to protect their crops in the best possible way, which is where the greenhouse industry comes in. “There is more consideration on the part of all growers than considering protecting their crops from massive weather events like fires, hail, floods and droughts - Australia seems famous for these extreme weather events. Producers were getting tired of losing harvest after harvest, year after year, so a change had to take place ”.

At the same time, Australian growers are trying to mitigate the risks of pests and diseases. “Australia, in the past, has been quite isolated. However, we are no longer so lucky and we have had a number of exotic pests and diseases that have reached our shores. Fair Trade Agreements have allowed the flow of horticultural products to our shores, putting our biosecurity at risk and finding cracks to infiltrate our states and farms. Outbreaks of exotic pests like the streamer leaf miner in the Greater Sydney Basin are causing a lot of stress and distress for growers as there are few chemicals on record and they may not yet be using IPM strategies to combat it. We are seeing exotic pest incursions more frequently, which is a constant concern for our growers. The adoption of nets, plastic covers, tunnels,

Labor problems

Then there is the labor problem, which causes producers to opt for a smaller workforce. “For example, a Tier 1 (entry level) casual employee in the horticultural sector today must earn a minimum of $25,41 per hour, but the actual cost to the employer is approximately $31 per hour once all costs are calculated. This has caused farmers in the horticulture sector in Australia to consider automation and super-efficient ways of using labor, which in many organizations represents 65% of their total costs. Therefore, the adoption of new ways of training fruit trees, planting orchards, planting fruiting walls and being able to use machinery as much as possible has skyrocketed in the last 5 years to increase work efficiency and get away with a smaller workforce than before. past."

He adds that sheltered intensive growing systems, especially high-tech greenhouses, are incredibly good at maximizing labor efficiency: “Scissor lifts, harvest carts, driverless vehicles (Bogaert Bees) in the greenhouses, stacking and palletizing machinery from suppliers such as TAKS and excellent packaging machinery in the packaging plants.

“Producers understand that consistency in quality and quantity is imperative and vital to having good and healthy relationships with the supply chain, including supermarkets, which require a year-round supply of products. Producers aim to fill supply gaps or peak periods of price recovery, which typically occurs when supply occurs out of season or on the shoulders of peak production periods. These are the nice ‘sweet spots’ of high profitability and all of these benefits can be achieved by using protected cropping, where climate, nutrition and crop handling can be controlled or optimized for best results.”

Healthy horticultural sector

Overall, Australia is in a good position with a very healthy horticultural sector that is increasing in size, sophistication and automation. “By 2030, Australian agriculture aims to be a $100 billion industry (they are now at just over $70 billion), so Australian horticulture must be prepared accordingly to contribute its part to this goal.” in the next 8 years. “So there is still a lot of room for improvement and efficiency across the board.”

The growing market results in an increase in 'Corporate / Investor' type businesses. “Companies from outside our industry and sometimes even abroad have invested large sums of money in establishing horticultural operations, including large, sophisticated and organized companies that are designed to have incredible returns on investment. This has changed the landscape with some companies even going public, going global and having a global impact with their systems, genetics and knowledge, indicating that there are great prospects for the Australian horticultural sector. "

One thing Nicky is sure of is that as a Protected Cropping organization Australia needs to be there to support its new growers with knowledge, training and various forums to help spread knowledge and experience. “Existing protected crop growers in Australia are doing well and setting staggering goals. I see growers starting to dip their toes in the water with maybe 1 to 5% of their crop under protection and little by little they are passing more and more crops under protection, like an insurance policy to make sure. to reap what they sow and maintain their market share. I see more and more corporate-style companies entering this sector, as clean and organic food production will be essential with future population growth and protected crops as a safe and reliable return on investment. With precious resources like water,

The Protected Crop Sector Mapping Project in Australia

For example, PCA is supporting the UNE mapping project of the protected crop sector in Australia. “This data will provide accurate figures of the size, scale and detail of our industry in Australia, so that we can draw the attention of the government to support our growth going forward. We are also determined to get the Greenhouse Building Code officially recognized by the Australian Building Code to accept our structures as unique and requiring different treatment than other factories or buildings, which will greatly help our members to overcome bureaucracy, reduce time and costs. to get the approval and start-up of new projects. Finally, concentrating on training and improving our workforce to operate and manage these food-producing protected crop systems is essential to adequately equip our country for the future of food production. "

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