Sweetpotato industry clues up for the future

Sweetpotato industry clues up for the future

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ENGAGED: Sweetpotato growers and researchers tune into the paddock discussion over growing techniques and plant health.

ENGAGED: Sweetpotato growers and researchers tune into the paddock discussion over growing techniques and plant health.

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Few industries can boast 85% of its members attending a workshop but the sweetpotato sector did just that as growers embraced recent workshops.

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SWEETPOTATO growers are aiming to “own their own destinies” after recent workshops held in Bundaberg, Queensland and Cudgen, NSW. 

Growers representing about 85 per cent of Australia’s sweetpotato production attended the workshops and field demonstrations over the two days, attending from as far away as Atherton, Rockhampton and the Locker Valley to get involved.

The agronomic material that made up the bulk of the days was presented by scientists from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), ASPG and the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

Australian Sweetpotato Growers (ASPG) principal horticulturist, Craig Henderson, there was a considerably positive atmosphere within both meetings. 

“You just couldn't get a more enthusiastic group of people, committed to sweetpotatoes as a sustainable, healthy contributor to the Australian economy and community,” Mr Henderson said.  

TUNED IN: The sweetpotato workshops provided the opportunity for growers to engage with Horticulture Innovation Australia staff over funding and projects.

TUNED IN: The sweetpotato workshops provided the opportunity for growers to engage with Horticulture Innovation Australia staff over funding and projects.

The days began with growers discussing broader industry development activities with Horticulture Innovation Australia leaders.

Hort Innovation’s Craig Perring and Christian Patterson outlined diverse marketing activities promoting the health benefits of sweetpotatoes to Australians, especially young families with active, growing children.

A highlight was the story of growers Jane Prichard and Chanel Kennedy talking to eager mothers at the Sydney Baby Show.

The growers emphasised the enthusiasm of parents to find out all things sweetpotato.

Growers were keen to see how their marketing levies were being spent, and contributed positively to discussions on future activities.

Investment plan

CONSULTANT Brian Ramsay summarised progress on the Sweetpotato Investment Plan, which will influence industry research and development activities for the next five to eight years.

While growers have already contributed through initial consultation, they organised additional conversations with Mr Ramsay to make sure as levy payers they continue to heavily influence research activities.

Mr Henderson rounded out the morning session outlining ASPG's commitment to effective industry development for its members, as well as the broader sweetpotato community.

In particular, he discussed how important it was for research efforts across organisations to be coordinated, to maximise the industry benefits of current and future work.

ALL IN: Growers attended from the major sweetpotato growing regions in Australia, including Cudgen, Bundaberg, Atherton and the Lockyer Valley.

ALL IN: Growers attended from the major sweetpotato growing regions in Australia, including Cudgen, Bundaberg, Atherton and the Lockyer Valley.

ASPG is committing funds and resources to make this happen, as well as strongly facilitating grower engagement and partnering in research activities.

Mr Henderson also ran through biosecurity issues impacting the sweetpotato industry, stressing preparations for exotic pest incursions, and effective engagement with regulatory organisations.

In an innovate twist, DAF scientist, Rachael Langenbaker, provided Lego figurines to spice up the points being made. 

The afternoon sessions were more practically focussed, showcasing research and outcomes from Hort Innovation Project VG13004 “Innovating new virus diagnostics and planting bed management in the Australian Sweetpotato Industry”, as well as allied sweetpotato R&D activities.

Weather hindrance

DUE to the heavy rain in Bundaberg in mid-October, the scheduled field walk was replaced by indoor presentations and discussions.

However, Cudgen growers got the chance to visit the Prichard and Kennedy farms, to look at plant beds, discuss best agronomic practices, and figure out how to maximise the benefits of their clean plant material scheme.

The industry attendees saw how their research project has changed the way growers construct and manage their plant beds.

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Compared to three years ago, growers are making their beds higher, and only covering their bedding roots with a 3-5 cm layer of soil, to maximise aeration and reduce losses from rots.

Mr Henderson and Ms Langenbaker discussed how new sweetpotato cultivars were probably more difficult to manage in plant beds, and that irrigation precision, preventing over-heating under plastic, and preferencing smaller bedding roots, were probably key components of a sustainable system.

They also discussed how nitrogen nutrition could be adjusted for the different cultivars, and that complete fertilisers (organic or inorganic based) were probably a good insurance for optimal productivity.

There were some grower observations and spirited discussions on several of these points.

Industry threats

IN both Bundaberg and Cudgen, the industry heard from DAF Virologist Sandra Dennien about the current sweetpotato virus threats in Australia, their distribution and seasonal occurrence.

Growers appeared enthusiastic to hear their clean plant material scheme had actually removed two viruses from commercial presence in the main growing areas.

Ms Dennien told growers about recent improvements in diagnostic capability, with the hope that molecular techniques could provide more rapid, routine capacity to screen for a range of current and potential virus threats.

OUTSIDE: Workshop attendees take the opportunity to shift the classroom outside for more hands-on demonstrations.

OUTSIDE: Workshop attendees take the opportunity to shift the classroom outside for more hands-on demonstrations.

The industry attendees watched demonstrations of LAMP molecular diagnostic units, by both Ms Dennien, and USQ scientist Bree Wilson.

Whilst Ms Dennien was testing sweetpotato leaf samples for viruses, Ms Wilson was demonstrating the potential for the machine to test soil samples for nematodes, critical pests, or beneficial organisms (depending on species), in sweetpotato production.

Both scientists reinforced it was still early days but expressed excitement that the technology could bring laboratory precision to field sites, and really improve the turnaround time for diagnostics.

More timely analytics could prove very useful for key decision making on farms, as well as regional management of new pest incursions.

Sensing soil

MR Henderson and Ms Langenbaker also described how they were evaluating Chameleon soil moisture and temperature sensors (developed by CSIRO) in sweetpotato plant beds.

Given how important irrigation and temperature management are in plant bed performance and root breakdown, both researchers and growers are excited about a cost-effective tool that may assist industry learning.

The sensing technology is still very much a work in progress, with some issues of connectivity and capturing data.

However, already seven growers are participating in evaluations. The research team is seeing big differences in irrigation strategies, with many growers opting to err on keeping soil dry, to reduce breakdown of roots in plant beds.

Both the LAMP and Chameleon research activities are undertaken by projects substantially funded through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), supporting collaborative sweetpotato research in Papua New Guinea and Australia .

It demonstrated the benefits of coordinating sweetpotato R&D activities between organisations such as DAF, CQU, USQ, ASPG and funding bodies like Hort Innovation and ACIAR.

Feedback with attendees following the sweetpotato industry days indicated they were happy to have come along, and took ideas and practices away that they could immediately try out.

Several researchers and growers talked about setting up an annual “sweetpotato week”, so people could program in getting to workshops and field days.

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