Staphyt team adapt during unprecedented weather events

Australia and New Zealand endured an unprecedented Spring and Summer in the face of devastating bushfires, unforgiving drought conditions and major storms.

Flexibility needed in Victoria to keep trials safe
While the Staphyt Melbourne headquarters escaped direct threat of the Australian bushfires, a great deal of flexibility was needed to ensure trials in the regional areas could still be carried out.

Melbourne Site Manager Thomas Razin said air quality throughout the entire state of Victoria was severely affected during the fires, as was the ability to travel due to road closures.

“Our Victorian team was lucky enough to not suffer as badly as many other places in the country,” Thomas said.

“However, because our trials are all conducted in regional areas, we needed to be able to adapt our approach quickly in order to respond to the evolving situation.

Thomas said a number of trials were also postponed or diverted to other ‘safer’ areas.

“The bushfires in Gippsland required us to postpone some trials – not only because of the bushfires, but also because of a number of rapidly-changing road closure announcements,” Thomas said.

“The Victorian Government’s Watch and Act app kept us up-to-date on the fire risk which we were very thankful for.”

Travel to trials in the Yarra Valley were also affected, Thomas said.

“There were also days when the temperature reached 40 degrees, with strong gusty winds creating ash particles right across Victoria. Staff safety was paramount on these days.

“The air quality was very poor for a number of days, so our staff needed to avoid physical work outside,” Thomas said.

“The bushfires were extremely destructive, but by listening to the Government messages, we simply adapted our activities to keep our staff safe, and to minimise damage to our trials.”

    Other techniques used to combat the bushfire conditions:

  • Strawberry crops received regular mist to cool flowers down and avoid ash being absorbed into the fruit.
  • Two GLP trials were transferred to the Staphyt Toowoomba team to avoid the bushfire conditions.
  • The Staphyt team travelled further afield to find suitable trial sites in order to avoid severe high temperatures.
  • Most fruit and vegetable farmers were able to access water so the drought conditions were relatively well controlled during the fruit production period.

Thomas said Mother Nature had smiled upon the almond season in far North West Victoria when two heavy storms hit some six weeks apart – beginning in late January – provoking premature nut-drops. “The nuts were swept daily to ensure the husk dried properly whilst avoiding the worst of the stormy season,” he said.

Other trials were not so lucky.

“Our disease trials were very challenging, as the pathogen dried out so quickly in the very hot temperatures and lack of rainfall.

“Some crops, such as rockmelon, suffered badly in the heat with the lack of water, with a number of these abandoned.

“But overall, I believe our teams did a fantastic job to continue out high quality trials throughout a very challenging Summer,” he said.

Research trials lucky to escape unscathed in Bundaberg
Research trials in the Bundaberg (Northern Queensland) region were lucky to escape any major impact during the bushfire season, largely due to exceptional irrigation practices.

Bundaberg and the Wide Bay region received just 30% of its normal 1022mm annual rainfall over Summer, however Regional Leader, Mitchell Faint said the availability of irrigation scheme water from two damns in the region protected the majority of crops.

“There was a relatively minor impact on horticulture in the area due to the good availability of irrigation scheme,” Mitchell said.

“There were no restrictions placed on irrigation water supply, the only limit being the amount of allocation a grower already had.

“Because all Staphyt crops were 100% irrigated and nearly all linked to the scheme water, there was no significant impact on our trials.

“Some trials were delayed or slow to start, some pest pressure were low, and some potential trial sites weren’t available due to dry conditions but overall we have been very lucky.”

Multiple challenges for growers and researchers in South East Queensland
Extremely dry conditions in South East Queensland caused a number of challenges for both growers and researchers over the Summer period. With bore water the main source of irrigation for both farming and trials in the Lockyer Valley, the quality of water in depleting aquifers created multiple problems, Toowoomba Site Manager Eugene Chau said.

“The bore water got more saline as the water level in the aquifers depleted,” Eugene said.

“High salinity in combination with reduced water has a detrimental effect on crops which are intolerant to salinity – crops such as persimmons.”

Eugene said the lack of rain also affected pest and disease pressure for research trials.

“For example, downy mildew likes a cold, humid environment, while powdery mildew likes a warm, humid environment – neither of these types of diseases could proliferate this season,” he said.

“Aphids are also affected by the high temperatures.

“These pest and disease pressures make it hard to find a reliable trial site.”

Eugene said the frustrations felt by Staphyt researchers paled in significance to the challenges faced by many farmers over the Summer period.

“Some growers from the upper area of the Lockyer Valley were forced to reduce 90% of their planting area as the bore simply could not supply sufficient water to the entire farm,” he said.

Eugene said bushfires – which destroyed 20,000 ha of farming land in the region – further compounded the already challenging conditions.

“Besides losing valuable trial sites, the bushfires also killed a lot of native flying pest, like the olive lace bug and aphids which seek refuge in the bush during the off season,” he said.

“The fires also affected avocado growers and one of our target pests, the moth,” he said.

Eugene said the Staphyt Toowoomba team had adapted its irrigation methods and were looking to expand trial sites further outside to region in order to respond to the very difficult season.

Vicious storm hits NZ South Island Coastline
Staphyt crops were lucky to escape the worst of a devastating storm which caused chaos on the coastline of South Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island last November.

Golf ball-sized hail decimated many crops between Timaru and North of Rakaia (Approximately 150 km), but Staphyt Ltd Country Manager for NZ operations Jarrod Harvey said the majority of Staphyt trials avoided the worst of it.

“Fortunately, more of our trials this season were located inland, and the ones which were on the coast hadn’t emerged yet,” Jarrod said.

“One pea trial – in its early stage – had to be abandoned due to it being destroyed by hail.

“It could have been a lot worse.”