Engaging with growers from culturally diverse backgrounds
In 2017, the VegNET team established a training program for vegetable growers from a culturally and linguistically diverse background with an aim to increase their farming knowledge and improve on-farm best practice. In this column, VegNET – New South Wales Regional Development Officer Sylvia Jelinek provides an overview of the program and the positive impact it has had on these growers from the Greater Sydney region.
Vietnamese growers in the Greater Sydney region are part of a grower group from a culturally and linguistically diverse background (CALD). Many started farming operations in the early 1980s when Asian vegetable varieties were becoming more popular in Australia. The majority of their farms are small (two to four hectares), and most do not own their land. They often lease land for a relatively short-term. Their experience in farming ranges from only a few years to more than 30. Many experienced growers are retiring from farming in the next few years and their children show little to no interest in continuing their parents’ businesses. New growers also have little farming background or experience before migrating to Australia.
Prior to arriving in Australia, these growers were often employed in trade or process work in Vietnam and did not have any prior farming experience. They learned basic greenhouse vegetable and herb production from friends or from other CALD groups, such as the well-established Arabic speaking background growers and technical advisers in the region. Many of the Arabic speaking background growers now lease their farms to Vietnamese and other growers from CALD background, such as the Cambodian community.
Much of what these growers have learnt has been a case of trial and error. This group of growers tend to rent greenhouses from landholders, so there is little motivation to invest in improving infrastructure. Consequently, the VegNET project focused on increasing new growers’ knowledge of basic technology that requires minor investment, as well as improving skills in ‘low’ to ‘medium tech’ greenhouse production. Fertigation, irrigation and pest management were identified as skills needed most by these growers.
Training that began in 2017 focused on the immediate needs of new growers and promotes basic best practices. The aim was to deliver benefits to the growers without needing much financial farm investment. Bringing in an agriculturally-experienced Vietnamese translator, Ho Dang, helped engage with growers and build relationships with the VegNET – New South Wales team and the community. Mentorships have also developed over this period of engagement.
Through a coordinated, co-innovation approach, the VegNET – New South Wales project resulted in growers improving their farming practices and, more importantly, their awareness of best practice, learnt through training, workshops and farm tours. The greatest impact was seen with new growers.
Practice changes were found in pest and disease management as well as improved crop management and awareness of environmental impacts from farming. Improvements in pest and disease management included weed removal and herbicide spraying, leaving farms cleaner both in and outside greenhouses; crop debris removal and disposal; and waterlogged areas levelled and covered with weed mat to reduce the incidence of pests and diseases.
Growers are now aware of the risks of repeated use of broad spectrum and ‘hard’ chemicals. They have started using selective chemicals despite the higher cost, which will reduce spray applications in the long run and lessen the risk of pests developing chemical resistance. After the training, growers are more aware of the importance of natural predators; however, more training is needed to help them practise integrated pest management (IPM) effectively.
Growers are also now more aware of the connection between over watering and disease incidence. They have rescheduled water frequency and volume according to the weather on the day, rather than one-schedule-fits-all days and started practising regular maintenance on their irrigation systems. By seeing the benefit of a regular cleaning schedule on the farm tour, some cucumber growers are now cleaning their system using chlorine dioxide after each crop.
The size of pots and spacing between pots have also been addressed. Through practical training and farm tour observations, some growers realised the importance of increasing the medium volume in relation to root development and yield. They have started changing pot size from smaller to larger as well as increasing space between the pots. Also, they saw the benefit of partly removing lower leaves from cucumber and tomato plants. A number of growers have started implementing this practice and have gained better crop quality and yield.
Although aspects of environmental management have always been included in different training sessions, we observed that growers’ appreciation for long-term environmental sustainability is more profound when they gain economic benefits from applying recommended practices.
It has been great to see new Vietnamese greenhouse growers respond enthusiastically with new understanding and knowledge learned in a short time, as persuading growers to adopt practice change can be a challenging task. Training has been a crucial part in creating practice change. Prior to this training, for example, many growers believed that weeds were harmless and did not harbour insect pests and diseases. Removing or spraying weeds was seen as a waste of time and labour. Once growers gained experience and adopted better farm hygiene, they could see positive results. With the project taking a systems-based approach to problem solving, growers changed their practices and improved their production systems when it was affordable to do so.
It was evident that newer growers showed a greater desire to improve on-farm practices than experienced growers. The belief is that once growers change and improve, in time their income and cost savings will improve. The VegNET – New South Wales project has initiated a considerable impact on the life of new growers who are very appreciative of our effort in facilitating to upgrade their skills and understanding in farming.
We recommend that further assistance be extended to these growers in the future. As growers’ knowledge, skills and understanding improves, the benefits would be multi-faceted and include not only better income for growers, but also safer and better quality produce for the wider community and an environmentally sustainable industry in peri-urban areas around Greater Sydney. After seeing the benefits of adopting improved practices, these growers are keen to learn more new ideas that with help improve productivity.
It is hoped that other Vietnamese growers in Australia can be connected to local growers – through the national VegNET network – to share knowledge and information.
Find out more
Please contact VegNET – NSW Regional Development Officer Sylvia Jelinek from Greater Sydney Local Land Services on 0427 086 724 or email@example.com, or Matthew Plunkett on 0428 978 390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
VegNET – New South Wales is a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Vegetable Fund.
This project has been funded by Hort Innovation using the vegetable research and development levy and contributions from the Australian Government.
Project Number: VG19011
Cover image: Enthusiastic Vietnamese growers after an irrigation workshop in Greater Sydney.