The Syngenta Grower of the Year award recognises outstanding achievement across all aspects of horticultural production, including growing, environmental management, staff management and quality of produce. It also acknowledges grower commitment to innovation and advancing the Australian horticulture industry. In this edition, past winners Peter Schreurs, Jim Trandos, Scott Samwell and Jason Shields chat with Michelle De’Lisle about the award and its significance. The Syngenta Grower of the Year award will feature again in 2021 at the National Awards for Excellence, which will be held at Hort Connections in June.

Victorian apple and pear grower, Jason Shields, admits it has been a “rollercoaster” 18 months since winning the 2019 Syngenta Grower of the Year award at Hort Connections.

Jason is Orchard Manager at Plunkett Orchards, located in Shepparton in Victoria’s north-east. At the beginning of 2020, the business started to implement mechanised instruments to make on-farm work simpler. Harvesting machines, mechanical pruning and new software were introduced. However, it was a gamble that almost didn’t pay off.

“We started picking in January last year and while records weren’t being set, we were picking good quality fruit. But I was starting to doubt myself a little bit, because we weren’t necessarily picking the volume that we expected out of the machines or the people,” Jason explains.

“In February, I went over to New Zealand to talk to growers. They were relying on seasonal workers and everything they seemed to be doing was better, so I came back a little bit concerned. And then COVID-19 hit.

“From March onwards – once we started picking Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples – we had our best year ever with the harvesters.”

Plunkett Orchards is an example of how future-proofing a business can prevent major losses when an unprecedented event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, occurs.

“That’s my philosophy: let’s future-proof our business to have stable employment going forward. We have to create a job that anyone can do,” Jason says.

“Seasonal workers are something that can be taken away from me; the Government could change its policies and say they can’t come in anymore and that is the same with backpacker schemes, which is what happened when the border was shut.

“You have to evolve with our climate, our people and our world, and I’m 100 per cent confident that we went the right way.”

Reward for effort

Jason’s journey with horticultural technologies began 15 years ago when he went to Europe for the first time.

“I started planting orchards based off an upcoming system. We think that using a sickle bar is the future in mechanical pruning,” he says.

“Then we brought in the platforms, which are also the harvesting machines. We took ladders away from our workers to start with; now we’re taking bags away and workers don’t have to use tractors. We’ve simplified everything and made it as easy as possible to work.

“I’m not aiming to set yield records. I’m trying to grow fruit as easily and as profitable as possible.”

It is Jason’s ingenuity and willing to share ideas and insight that earned him the 2019 Syngenta Grower of the Year award.

Jason says winning the award was a “humbling experience.”

“It has opened other people’s eyes to our business and the way we do things. At the initial point, there was a lot of interest, there were people wanting to come have a look at our operation,” he says.

Since winning the Sygenta Grower of the Year award over a year ago, Jason has learnt to have faith in business decisions, and he has advice for others currently in a similar situation.

“Trust the process. I went to New Zealand and doubted myself – I forgot about the whole reason behind why we did what we did. Believe in what you have done; have faith and confidence and keep working towards your goals.”