Matt Ryan has fostered a love of the land into a rewarding career, running a mixed farming business with his wife Tricia in northern Tasmania. Matt speaks to AUSVEG about the changes he has witnessed over the years as a vegetable grower, embracing on- and off-farm challenges and the importance of sustainability.

Fast facts

Name: Matt Ryan
Location: Forth, TAS
Works: Harvest Moon
Grows: Potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, pyrethrum and poppies

Matt Ryan never particularly intended to pursue a career in vegetable production, but upon leaving agriculture college, he found his first full-time job as a field officer for vegetable producers Harvest Moon. In 1999, he and Tricia started their own farm and have been growing ever since.

Now the mixed farm includes broiler (chicken) production, livestock, pyrethrum, poppies, vegetables including potatoes, onions, carrots and beans, for both processed and fresh markets and covers around 540 hectares of land around the major vegetable production region of north-west Tasmania, as well as managing an agricultural contracting and transportation business which focuses on services to the vegetable industry.

“I do not come from a family farm – I was introduced to farming at an early age and wanted to pursue agriculture in general. It chose me and from there I extended to the vegetable industry,” Matt says.

“I really enjoy cropping and vegetable growing, which is why I have continued to pursue it. The thing about vegetables is there are lots of different dynamics and lots of different things happening all the time. As the season changes, so does your job.”

This mantra exemplifies an attitude of genuine appreciation for the career that Matt has developed. It has also led to work on behalf of the industry through various roles at the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA), where he is a director and vice chair of the organisation.

Facing challenges

Matt’s personality is one that relishes a challenge, and while he understands the nature of vegetable production will always be shifting, some changes are more welcome than others.

In particular, the past year in Tasmania provided difficult production conditions for growers across the state, including drought, prolonged wet conditions and periods of heavy rain and flooding.

“We went through the driest period we have had in my time, from August 2015 to January 2016, but the primary issue was the six inches of rain at the end of January when we were almost ready for harvest. It resulted in significant losses across many different crops,” Matt says.

“The damage from heavy rainfall and flooding during winter and spring has been significant, and that goes to show why it is important to have ground cover and produce growing in the ground all the time, because it just makes a big mess when you get a big rain. Large amounts of farmer’s topsoil in the region ended up being shifted into Bass Strait or the estuaries.”

Recovery has been facilitated in the region through a lot of hard work, and the ground stayed wet where cover cropping and remedial soil practices would normally be implemented. Topsoil has been physically carted onto some paddocks to repair the damage. This only strengthened Matt’s belief that caring for the land comes first.

“We are all users of the environment and we are only here for a visit, the whole lot of us. I have children and it is important that these resources are there in the future – we are acutely conscious of that,” he says.

“That process is ongoing in the back of your head all the time, particularly when there are floods. You think about how you don’t want to damage our land or our waterways and the effect that this has on our environment.”

“We are all users of the environment and we are only here for a visit, the whole lot of us. I have children and it is important that these resources are there in the future – we are acutely conscious of that."

Appreciating the land   

Many on-farm practices have developed and changed since Matt started growing in 2000. In establishing which practices are best for his business, the Tasmanian grower has prioritised his production requirements and emphasised a value to his time.

“GPS technology is the biggest thing that has changed. Investment in irrigation and irrigation technology gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of return on investment, improving your productivity and also improving your work-life balance and livelihood,” Matt says.

“Variable rate technology is not going to save you if it won’t stop raining, but it is going to save you on your water inputs, and you get better quality out of the ground in a normal, or dry season. There is the ability to tailor more water on the dry areas and less on the wet, and that makes a huge difference. The next step for the industry to adopt is variable rate fertiliser inputs.”

He describes the major production drivers as being the need to diversify, reduce risk profile and offset your requirements of the land. To achieve this, Matt uses inputs such as cover crops and chicken manure to balance out his soil profile.

“We use our own chicken litter on our farm, which has been quite beneficial for us. The soil that we grow on and the chicken litter from the poultry side of the operation complement each other, which is primarily used for potato production. We try and get cover on our ground after our crops to look after the soil and make sure we aren’t flogging the ground all the time,” he says.

“At the end of the day, as famers and growers, we are resources managers. Our business is to leave the environment as well as we can for the next generation because we have only got one of this land. There isn’t any more soil, land and water resources being made – we are all acutely aware of that these days.”

While striving towards a better environment drives him personally, Matt understands the need for compliance is an external pressure to his business. As an EnviroVeg member, he believes accreditation is necessary as businesses are being incrementally more scrutinised.

“Compliance is driven down the supply chain, by retailers and consumers. The value of Australian vegetables is in their health benefits and because they are produced under great conditions. I think that we, as an industry, could do a better job of promoting that.”

A bright future

Despite the large and often complex challenges, Matt remains positive about the future of the Australian vegetable industry.

“There are exciting things happening in the industry at the moment. We can compete internationally with our products with the dollar at a more realistic level, and finding a home for product overseas means it stabilises the price in the domestic market so that’s got to be good.

“In general, agriculture and horticulture is a fantastic place to work and one of the best jobs or career paths anyone can choose. There are so many different places it can take you. The job is always changing, it’s never boring and you’re not often doing the same thing twice. We need to promote this choice to young people, and get them involved.”

This grower profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian vegetable industry, Vegetables Australia. If you’d like to subscribe to receive a new edition of Vegetables Australia in your mailbox every two months, use our online subscription form!

Photography credit: Heath Holden