Growing Innovation: Issue 3, March 22, 2016

Variety education drives opportunity and returns

Matthew Pritchard, Cudgen, NSW

Matthew Prichard’s first foray into farming was in the school holidays when he would work with his father Robert on the family farm in the Cudgen area on the Northern NSW coast. He finished school and went on to study horticulture at the University of Queensland, before returning to the family farm.

This farmer truly has farming in his veins – a third-generation farmer from his father’s side and fifth generation from his mother’s. And amazingly, all in the Cudgen area.

Today, the farming enterprise is 120 acres with 65 acres of sweetpotato crop farmed each year, equating to 100,000 boxes at 18 kilos each, per annum, all for domestic consumption.

“We also used to farm tomatoes and zucchinis, but now focus 100 per cent on sweetpotatoes to allow for better management and economics and minimise labour issues,” said Matthew.

There are key challenges that Matthew and his family faces, some applicable to whole-of -industry and some specific to farmers in his region.

“Availability of land is a real issue in this region of northern NSW. Land gets snapped up by developers and ‘sea changers’ who never intend to farm. But Cudgen red soil is some of the youngest soil in Australia and ideal for plant growth by allowing plant roots to explore all of the soil for water and nutrients stored there.

“It makes sense that Cudgen is currently one of the biggest sweetpotato producing areas in the country and the most productive by area. But being only 2km from the ocean, the area is highly urbanised which makes the application of chemicals a further challenge. The use of field sprays is necessary but highly problematic.”

That said, Matthew believes the holistic approach to pests and disease is where real advancements have been seen in the industry, with less reliance on chemical applications.

“We use whole-of-crop integrated pest management strategies with techniques like crop hygiene, cover cropping, volunteer crop removal and valuating varieties as part of our pest and disease control plans. Then, when we apply chemicals the results are better – we see real benefit from these improved pest management approaches.”

There are issues at market which need to be addressed and Matthew hopes that the new Sweetpotato Industry Marketing Levy will push towards these changes.

“It is critical for sweetpotato growers that the overall consumption of the produce lifts in order to improve returns at farm gate. With factors at play like increased labour costs and the massive burden of compliance, we need to drive consumption and grow our returns. We have better quality and quantity of product … now we look to have better demand”.

Matthew also believes the levy will provide value in the variety space, something he sees as vitally important for the future of the sweetpotato industry.

“The industry has been able to develop nematode resistant varieties but these aren’t well accepted at market level. Reliance on the popular Beauregard variety leaves the industry very vulnerable to pest and disease incursions.”

“Yet other varieties that perform well, like Bellevue, are not accepted or understood by consumers, which makes them difficult to sell. Consumers just don’t really know what to do with them,” he said.

“There is so much opportunity for this industry. I find the future incredible exciting. And there are real, enthusiastic youth here in Cudgen, driving the industry. We have eight sweetpotato farmers here under the age of 40. We are in it for the long haul,” he said.