PROTECTED cropping achieved an Australian first today, with the launch of a cutting-edge research facility in western Sydney.
Grower-funded research body Hort Innovation partnered with Western Sydney University to build the $7 million National Vegetable Protected Cropping Centre at the Hawkesbury campus.
Assistant Minister for Agriculture Anne Ruston told the audience at the launch event that Australia needed to innovate to keep pace with international industry.
“This centre is our chance to make real gains in this area and develop systems tailored to local conditions, stay up-to-date with the latest technology, maximise returns for growers and train the next generation of horticulturists,” she said.
The Netherlands’ Wageningen University and Research assisted in development of the facility, which horticulture leaders aim to emulate - with adaptations to local conditions.
The National Vegetable Protected Cropping Centre glasshouse features eight temperature-controlled chambers with transitional glass that adjust colour in response to exterior light levels.
Ms Ruston said new research was essential for industry development.
The current average return on investment is between 5 per cent and 10pc, which could rise to 25pc for high technology greenhouse vegetable enterprises, she said.
But advancements must filter through the supply chain to the farmgate.
“I put an emphasis on extension here, without it there is no point in what we are doing today,” she said.
Hort Innovation Hort Innovation chief executive John Lloyd said growing global food demand is creating unprecedented opportunities for local protected cropping in domestic and export markets.
He said research would target increased commercial yields and input reductions - particularly energy, labour, nutrients and water.
“This is a one of a kind facility for Australia,” Mr Lloyd said.
Australian growers are enthusiastic users of innovative practices and new technology and regularly travel overseas to pick up tips.
“We import a lot of technology from the Netherlands, but they have different factors at play than us.
“Researchers here will work to manipulate inputs to create the optimum environment to drive maximum harvest windows and overall yield for a variety of vegetables.”
A fix is needed to the current shortage in skilled glasshouse staff, Mr Lloyd said, and the new facility would encourage students at Western Sydney University into the industry.
More than 10,000 people are employed in protected cropping and the industry grew about 5 per cent a year in the past decade, according to grower representative Protected Cropping Australia.
The $7m glasshouse was funded by $5.7m from Western Sydney University and $1.3m from Hort Innovation.
Its first research and development projects include work to optimise temperature, humidity, CO2 and light to increase productivity and lower energy and water inputs in cucumbers.
The effects of the facilities transitional and solar-generating glass technologies on plant productivity will be tested and a pollination project is also underway, focusing on efficiency in protected cropping and stingless bees.