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Published: 12 Dec 2022

The farm team at the Forthside Vegetable Research Facility standing beside a pea trial

The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) Vegetable Research Facility has undergone a digital transformation over the last 12 months, bringing the almost 60-year-old farm up to date with changing farming practices to deliver better outcomes for industry.

The 54-hectare research farm, which is better known as Forthside, is located on Tasmania’s North-West Coast. It was acquired by the then Department of Agriculture in 1963 and operated as a research and demonstration site for vegetable production before operation transferred to TIA in 2007.

Nowadays, Forthside is the site of diverse research trials and teaching that directly contribute to the sustainability and productivity of Tasmania’s agriculture industry. The recent digital transformation of the farm has seen the implementation of precision agriculture and remote sensing technologies which are creating new opportunities for research, education, and engagement with industry.

The upgrades are the result of a $7.8 million joint-investment from the Tasmanian Government and the University of Tasmania to support future success of TIA’s research farms in the North-West, also including the Dairy Research Facility at Elliott.

This investment aims to ensure that TIA’s research farms can provide high-quality outcomes for the next decade, supporting the Tasmanian Government’s goal to grow the value of Tasmania’s agriculture sector to $10 billion a year by 2050.

Creating impact for Tasmanian farmers

For the last five years, Doug Clark has been the Farm Manager at Forthside. He took on the role because he recognised the importance of the farm and saw an opportunity to enhance its capacity to deliver current and emerging RD&E in a contemporary farming system.

“If we were to count the number of direct outcomes for industry that Forthside has played a role in over the years, it would be in the hundreds,” Mr Clark said.

“We are here to support industry and industry-relevant research is our number one priority.”

Mr Clark said one of the benefits of Forthside was the ability to run research trials that cannot be undertaken on commercial properties, including deliberately detrimental treatments that allow researchers to study a crop pathogen, weed management or other experimental treatments that may result in yield penalties.

Tasmanian Soil Ecologist, Theresa Chapman, is undertaking a PhD with TIA looking into cover crops and their effect on soil biology. Having access to Forthside to conduct commercially relevant field trials is crucial to her research.

“The farm is located in the heart of an important vegetable cropping region, making it perfect for investigating issues affecting this significant industry. There is a high-quality support team to facilitate trial work, making field trials accessible to me, as an HDR student working on an individual project,” Ms Chapman said.

Being able to carry out large trials in the field under similar conditions to our local agricultural industry makes my research relevant and realistic for growers.”

Investment in research farm equipment

Upgrades to irrigation and farming equipment were enabled through the TIA Farms Upgrade Project with the goal of supporting precision agriculture, enhancing safety, and ensuring the best possible outcomes from the research that happens at Forthside.

Ageing machinery has been replaced with fit-for-purpose equipment including a 14-metre spray boom, Fendt 716 and 313 tractors, replacement hard hoses, and a liner irrigator expected to be installed in November.

“The hydraulic spray boom has been custom built to suit research and includes 28 nozzles that can be controlled individually as required. Being able to ensure repeatable accuracy is important for research trials. We have two 60 litre tanks that are so small compared with commercial reality but ensures that we don’t get any waste which is also important,” Mr Clark said.

“We need accuracy when we are conducting research trials, and this also gives us an opportunity to demonstrate some of the pointy-end technology that is starting to be used by industry.”

Other new equipment at Forthside includes a laser bird-control system that humanely deters birds from causing damage to trial crops by delivering a non-harmful beam of light.

SMART farm technology

A range of Sustainable, Manageable, Accessible Rural Technology (SMART) Farm technologies have been installed (by FarmPulse) at Forthside over the past 12 months, creating a demonstration site for farmers to see and interact with new technologies that could be adopted on their own properties.

These technologies will also be used by TIA staff in the development of future research project proposals and teaching initiatives.

Key features of the SMART Farm include the weather station, soil moisture sensors, water level indicators on dams and tanks, an on-site camera, and the ability to monitor irrigation pumps and remotely schedule irrigation.

It has been a game-changer for Mr Clark and the team at Forthside, who now have a full dashboard both at the farm and on their phones to monitor and manage water and irrigation requirements.

This off-the-shelf system has increased efficiency in both water use and time management and allows for much more informed and timely decision making. It also provides proof-of-concept for farmers who will be able to see firsthand how new technologies can save them time and assist with efficient decision-making.

“SMART Farm is awesome. It allows us to accurately monitor water and irrigation and know what is happening even when we are not on site,” Mr Clark said.

Partnerships with industry

Approximately six hectares is allocated each year for external users to conduct research at Forthside and Mr Clark says the research units have been mostly full over the last five years.

“This is a safe place for industry to conduct trials and they have full control over what happens, whether it be irrigation, groundwork, spray applications or fertiliser. It provides an option for conducting trials that can’t be done in a commercial setting,” Mr Clark said.

This year, SunPharma have a one-hectare site which is used to conduct trials relating to the poppy industry. Crop Scientist with SunPharma, Corey Hudson, said Forthside presented many benefits and efficiencies through the ability to co-locate multiple trials at a single, consolidated site.

“Owing to Sun Pharma’s reduced commercial cultivation in 2022/23 and a reduced availability of commercial poppy paddocks to undertake trial work in, Forthside provides an excellent opportunity and location to undertake agronomic and plant breeding trial work. This contributes to ensuring the competitiveness of Sun Pharma varieties and advancing our agronomic practices,” Dr Hudson said.

“Forthside has prior history with poppy cultivation and provides ease of contractor usage, farm hygiene, facilities for use by staff and management advice.”

Tasmanian Certified Seed Potato Scheme

Forthside is also the base of the Tasmanian Certified Seed Potato Scheme, which provides an independent service to ensure that seed potatoes are grown in accordance with a strict national standard. The scheme helps to ensure that only clean potato seed enters the industry, which helps to control the spread of pests and diseases

TIA’s Certification Officers, Kathryn Goulding and Ann-Maree Donoghue, work directly with 41 growers across Tasmania and are responsible for the field inspection of 750 hectares of seed potatoes. It’s an essential service as potatoes are one of Tasmania’s top agricultural products with a farm gate value of $137 million in 2019-20 (Tasmanian Agri-Food ScoreCard).

Visitors are welcome

Mr Clark said the best thing about managing a research farm is the variety of the work, which could involve growing anything, from industrial hemp to Chinese herbs, poppies, or any vegetable or grain crop.

“We get to do some cool things here that we can’t do commercially. For example, we might need to grow a particular fungus for a disease management trial and that is something that we try not to do as a commercial grower!” Mr Clark said.

“Growers, agronomists, and other people working in the industry enjoy coming here and we’ve always got someone coming to visit the farm. We welcome visits from industry and just ask that you call ahead.”

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

This article was written by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture's Communications Manager, and supplied for the December edition of the TFGA Farming Tasmania Magazine.