In July this year, a new 12-month Masterclass will commence with a focus on protected cropping. The course will include a combination of flexible online learning modules and intensive on-site workshops. Specialised units under the themes of science, technology, business and industry-focused research will be delivered to allow students to select those units best matched to their employers’ requirements and participants’ career objectives.

Protected cropping is expected to drive the next wave of profitability (domestic and export) for the Australian horticultural sector. Many growers are already planning for significant expansion in protected cropping, which will require hundreds of new staff to meet projected demand.

Recognising this, Western Sydney University has joined forces with Hort Innovation and five industry partners to deliver the Masterclass in Protected Cropping, a one-year course that will offer a range of graded qualifications, culminating in a Graduate Diploma (Protected Cropping).

The course will include a combination of flexible online learning modules and intensive on-site workshops, and students and current employees of the protected cropping industry will have opportunities to enrol. Holding a tertiary qualification is not compulsory to apply for this course, and the first intake of students is planned for July this year.

Emerging Leaders in Protected Cropping (LP18000) is a strategic partnership under the Hort Frontiers Leadership Fund.

Developing skills

Western Sydney University Professor Zhong-Hua Chen is leading the project, and stressed its importance in filling an education gap in a rapidly growing industry.

“The protected cropping industry in Australia has been growing quite rapidly, at an average of around 4-5 per cent per year, and we do not have any single horticulture course – let alone a graduate diploma-specific to protected cropping,” Professor Chen said.

“As the industry’s growing, it requires more skilled people, but it cannot get them. There are lots of other courses in agriculture, but they are more focused on cattle, field crops or broadacre production. Most of those students have limited knowledge and skills in horticulture because horticultural crops are very different to the crops they study.”

Professor Chen explained that this is creating a problem for horticultural growers, especially major vegetable operations.

“Agriculture graduates from many universities have very little practical skills in protected cropping and it’s difficult for the protected cropping companies to re-train those students to get sufficient skills to move into middle management or even in the office of major vegetable growing businesses,” he said.

“One of the drivers for this project is to get their existing staff trained and to attract young people to the protected cropping industry.”

The Masterclass in Protected Cropping will also be helpful for those already in the horticultural industry, particularly those junior growers who are looking to upskill and learn more about this sector.

Course structure

The Masterclass in Protected Cropping was designed by Western Sydney University with input from protected cropping peak bodies, Protected Cropping Australia and the Hydroponic Farmers’ Federation, and academics from Wageningen University Research in the Netherlands. It incorporates low-, medium- and high-tech cropping.

There will be six online units and two industry-focused research project units delivered during the Masterclass, including:

  • Plant-climate interactions in controlled environments.
  • Greenhouse crop production.
  • Greenhouse control systems.
  • Advanced greenhouse technology.
  • Business operations and logistics.
  • Strategic business management.
  • Industry project.
  • Extended industry project.

“The good thing about this graduate diploma is that we will run four workshops to replace the practical classes, which are usually associated with theoretical learning in the university system,” Professor Chen said.

“These four workshops will focus on software and hardware systems; crop and produce management; integrated pest management; and fertigation systems. These will be offered during the off-peak times for the protected cropping industry.

“Effectively, the students will only need to come to the university for a total of two weeks to complete all four workshops. They can still work part-time and do most of the learning online, so this gives them a lot of flexibility.”

It is expected that the Masterclass in Protected Cropping will be merged into Western Sydney University’s Master of Science (Greenhouse Horticulture), which will add an extra year of study for those students looking to take that extra step.

The bottom line

Professor Chen is optimistic that the inaugural Masterclass of Protected Cropping will be a success.

“I think this is a course that the horticultural industry – especially the protected cropping industry – wants to have, and Hort Innovation is supportive of it. For the broader vegetable industry, it has a very important value, especially when we look at the changing climate,” he said.

“We have such a dry climate here. We’re expecting that some growers may want to get into protected cropping, and this will provide them with the opportunity to see the benefits of protected cropping. They may want to change or convert a quarter of their farm production into protected cropping (as a result), ensuring resilience of vegetable growing businesses into the future.”

There is one final message from Professor Chen to the vegetable industry: Get involved.

“We want more participation in the future, especially from vegetable growers. If you are a vegetable grower, please provide a scholarship or an internship to any employees or identified students to participate in this course. They have the potential to become an emerging leader for the Australian vegetable industry, and it is likely to benefit your business.”

Find out more

Please contact Professor Zhonghua Chen at or on 02 4570 1934 or 0466 544 696.

Emerging leaders in protected cropping is funded by the Hort Frontiers Leadership Fund, part of the Hort Frontiers strategic partnership initiative developed by Hort Innovation, with co-investment from Western Sydney University, Flavorite, Costa Group Holdings, Perfection Fresh, Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, ICI Industries and contributions from the Australian Government.

Project Number: LP18000