Growing Innovation: Issue 17, October 19, 2016

“Our environmental initiatives are award-winning” 

Sonja Cameron, Cameron’s Nursery, NSW

With a life-long love of growing things, Sonja Cameron’s passion for the nursery industry is palpable. More than anything, that passion is focused on just getting involved – whether that means being hands on, as she continues to be in pioneering sustainability efforts in the industry, or whether that means sounding the call for others to get amongst it.

“I look at our industry and see it filled with absolutely fantastic, generous people who are happy to sit down to talk and share, which is a real strength for us,” Sonja said. “In my younger years I was lucky to be mentored by older growers whose advice was invaluable, and I’d love for everyone to get to experience that and benefit from the knowledge and support that’s out there – particularly women. Females can be really underrepresented in the industry, but there’s no reason why we can’t do things just as well as the men.”

Coming together isn’t just about learning something new from each other either, Sonja said. “It’s a chance to see that other people are sharing the same struggles, and to realise you’re not alone, which is really important for mental health.”

Sonja said that as well as sharing grower-to-grower, there’s an opportunity for growers to feed back to the broader industry and help affect change. “I’m a member of the Strategic Investment Advisory Panel for the industry and it’s exciting because we have that pot of levy money available to spend on research and development – but we need people out there to tell us what they want and need.”

Sonja’s message to fellow nursery growers, then? “Put your thinking caps on! If something really bugs you, if you feel there’s something that could be done better, if you think we need research into a certain pest or disease… whatever it is, it’s easy to submit a quick idea on the website.” [See Hort Innovation’s content proposal form here.]

When it comes to affecting change, Sonja is quite a mover and shaker herself around environmental sustainability. She and husband Andy have been running Cameron’s Nursery in New South Wales since 1992, specialising in perennials that they supply to chain stores, independent garden centres and landscapers. Over the years the business has won numerous awards for its environmental efforts, including the Nursery & Garden Industry of Australia’s National Environment Award in both 2015 and 2016.

“Our water is our biggest sustainability initiative,” Sonja said. “We started with capillary watering in the late ’90s, when it wasn’t commonplace in Australia. We’d had a dam on the property we were renting at the time run dry, and had no city water as a back-up. It made us realise we had to get better at water recycling and reducing our usage, so we did a lot of trialling and testing of the capillary approach, including making our own mats to efficiently deliver water to the plants.”

Water recycling also features heavily in Sonja’s business. “We treat our water naturally and don’t use any chemicals,” she said. “We use a lot of gravity, a lot of bio-filters, a lot of natural ways of removing phosphorous and nitrogen. The water is so clean once we get through with it.”

This water initiative generates quite a bit of interest, with high schools, universities and others from within the industry visiting the property to check it out.

Implementing sustainable practices needn’t be complicated or expensive, and Sonja said there are plenty of ways to start.

“A lot of things we’ve put in place are relatively cheap or have no cost. And a lot of it is just common sense in using nature. With crops it can be as simple as watching where you put them in the lay of the land. So the way the wind comes through for example – for us, plants that like windier areas are put in the paddocks that get a lot of wind, and because we’re mimicking nature, pests and diseases are reduced as much as possible.”

Sonja said that of course some of the innovations and approaches Cameron’s Nursery has tried haven’t worked out straight off. “But it’s a matter of keeping at it and not giving up,” Sonja said. “It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Well that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ but there’s always things we can and should strive to improve.”

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