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Sowing the seeds of success for the humble spud

JM Roberts

An innovative tool is being developed to help farmers, processors and policy makers predict potato yields from Tasmanian paddocks and the optimal time to plant and irrigate, thanks to new funding from a local charitable Trust.

Potatoes are the highest value vegetable in Tasmania, but they can be costly to produce because there a range of complex interactions that influence the crop yield, including: soil type, planting dates, irrigation strategies and climate.

Project leader Dr Jonathan Ojeda, a Junior Research Fellow from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) at the University of Tasmania said the project aimed to address the challenge of crop yield variability.

Dr Ojeda, who is a crop physiologist and modeller, said the ability to understand, predict and manage these variabilities would be of great benefit to the industry locally, nationally and internationally.

His multi-disciplinary team of farmers, producers and scientists, will develop a new visualisation tool that will assess the variability of predicted potato yields and water use under climate change scenarios in Tasmania.

By using biophysical crop modelling, the research team will create interactive maps that will show predicted potato yield, based on its location, which determines the soil and climate, and crop management.

“If you would like to grow potatoes, our crop maps would allow you to see the main drivers of yield variability for your property and predict how many tonnes of potatoes per hectare you can expect,” Dr Ojeda said.

“It will provide information that would be impossible to obtain in the field.”

It will also show how different management strategies impact the crop yield.

For example, Dr Ojeda said if the paddock had a soil type that was good at retaining water, the farmer could reduce irrigation and focus on the optimal planting date, saving water and money, and increasing land and water use efficiency.

“Or they may have a poor soil type and the main driver of crop variability is the irrigation strategy, so they may need to increase water usage,” he said.

The maps could also be used to identify new areas in Tasmania to grow potatoes and help policymakers make decisions about extending irrigation schemes across the state.

The potato project is one of two to receive the inaugural 2020 JM Roberts Seed Funding for Sustainable Agriculture.

Dr Ojeda said he was pleased to be the recipient of the funding, which would make a valuable contribution towards supporting their research project. His work is also supported by McCain, Simplot and several Tasmanian potato farmers.

Understanding how farmers and researchers see the benefits and challenges of regenerative agriculture is the focus of the second project to receive funding.

Regenerative agriculture and agroecology are approaches to farming, which focus on supporting natural ecological processes, rather than intensive agricultural approaches that can lead to soil degradation.

“Regenerative agriculture is being actively pursued by some of the world’s largest food companies, and most innovative farmers, yet remains an area of relatively little engagement for agricultural research and development,” TIA research fellow Dr Peat Leith said.

Two farmer groups, Regenerative Agriculture Network of Tasmania (RANT) and Soil First Tasmania will work with social researchers in TIA to interview farmers and researchers. The interviews will help define priorities for future research and development, as well as other ways to support excellence in regenerative agriculture.

TIA is a joint venture between the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government.

About the JM Roberts Charitable Trust

The Trust was established in 2003 by the late John Roberts with a goal to provide additional funding to support and promote the well-being of our natural environment today and for generations to come.

It aims to benefit northern Tasmania in the areas of reducing land and soil degradation, clean waterways, re-vegetation, managing erosion and informing and educating the community on the importance of Landcare.

This year, in philanthropic partnership with the University of Tasmania, they established the JM Roberts Seed Funding for Sustainable Agricultural, which will support two grants annually to advance activities in sustainable agriculture and support the development of new, innovative ideas at TIA.

Our alumni community may also be interested in finding out more about the JM Roberts and Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture Nuffield Farming Scholarship for Young Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture, which is valued at $30,000 and will be offered for the first time in 2021. Read more here.

Published on: 12 Aug 2020 11:38am