VegNET 3.0 is a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Fund. It strives to improve Australian vegetable growers’ knowledge and skills to implement best practice management on-farm through a variety of delivery mechanisms.

This investment acts as a knowledge broker to link growers with the best science and tools to meet their individual business development goals, as well as linking the rest of industry with growers to help focus R&D efforts.

At the forefront of the project are highly skilled and trained extension experts, known as Regional Development Officers (RDOs). Their focus is on delivering results for growers, while forming a key link in providing information and feedback into the levy investment system to ensure that R&D priorities are delivering on key industry issues.

In this edition of Vegetables Australia, RDOs Andrew Halpin (Wide Bay-Burnett) and David Shorten (North Queensland) introduce themselves to readers and outline their priorities for the third iteration of the nationally-coordinated, regionally-delivered VegNET project.

Wide-Bay Burnett Regional Development Officer: Andrew Halpin

Name: Andrew Halpin

Region: Wide Bay-Burnett

Andrew Halpin.

Organisation: Bundaberg Fruit & Vegetable Growers

Andrew Halpin grew up on his family’s sugarcane and vegetable farms in the Bundaberg region. From a young age, he was involved in the operations; helping to grow and pack capsicums, zucchinis, button squash, cucumbers, eggplant, chilies, melons and tomatoes.

Andrew tried a few different occupations in logistics and manufacturing before finding his way back to farming.

Andrew started his role as VegNET – Wide Bay Burnett Regional Development Officer in December 2021. Since then, he has been able to interact with many individuals, businesses and government organisations working in the Wide Bay-Burnett region.

Andrew believes grower involvement is key to the success of the VegNET project, particularly at a one-on-one level. Being a farmer himself, Andrew has always found it hard to accept information from someone who has never set foot on his farm and seen how it operates.

Having the opportunity to routinely meet with growers to discuss existing and emerging issues in their business and the industry will allow for a higher rate of success of the project. It will deliver the region’s growers greater access to information as well as demonstrative trial work.

A major focus for the Wide Bay-Burnett region over the next 12 months is fall armyworm. The region has seen an increased production of sweet corn over the past two years, and this pest is a major threat to the crop. Bundaberg Fruit & Vegetable Growers has been working with growers, biosecurity departments and ag-tech companies to investigate how industry can band together to address the issue.

Rising input costs is a challenge affecting all growers. There was a rapid increase over summer 2021/22, so working with growers on this issue is also high on the agenda for Andrew.

Andrew is hoping to achieve change in the next five years. VegNET – Wide Bay-Burnett’s focus areas are all issues that are either restricting or constricting the increased profitability and viability of the region’s growers. By increasing awareness and hopefully encouraging growers to modify their current practices or invest in certain areas, Andrew hopes to see change for the benefit of vegetable growers and industry.

North Queensland Regional Development Officer: David Shorten

Name: David Shorten

David Shorten.

Region: North Queensland

Organisation: Bowen Gumlu Growers Association

David Shorten joined the VegNET 3.0 project in January 2022. He has a background in agriculture, and prior to this role was a section head of an intensive aquaculture hatchery that was producing over 150 million prawns per year.

David completed a Bachelor of Science from James Cook University and a post graduate diploma while studying and working at Bribie Island with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and CSIRO.

David has learnt a lot since becoming the VegNET – North Queensland Regional Development Officer, particularly around building relationships and trust with growers – which he says is key to the project’s long-term success.

The past two years have seen many challenges thrown at the growers in North Queensland, with COVID and supply chain issues to name a few.

Davis is most looking forward to seeing the region’s vegetable production grow through innovation and technology. The traditional farming processes will be enhanced through precision agriculture, which will improve production output and lower labour costs.

There are three focus areas for year one of VegNET – North Queensland 3.0. These are: reduction of input costs, soil health, and reducing workforce through ag-tech innovations. There is a lot of scope across these three focus areas, but David is happy to assist growers with other work should they need it.

David’s focus over the five years will be to grow his profile and become at the front of growers’ minds when they think about improving their growing operation. He’d like to build a reputation as someone who is happy to go that extra mile to assist a grower with any activity or issue.

David is currently studying a Masters in Horticulture through the University of Queensland. He believes it is important to do a deep dive into horticulture from an educational and practical perspective, as well as gain a profound understanding of the challenges growers face.