Project BS12025: A focus on irrigation and fertiliser practices to improve production efficiency for LOTE strawberry growers, had the primary aim of promoting the adoption of efficient nutrition and irrigation practices among the Vietnamese growing community, who are responsible for growing about 80% of the crop in Western Australia. Originally designed as a three-year project, it was terminated one year early due to lack of interest and cooperation by most growers.
The first year, 2013, concentrated on benchmarking several aspects of production within the target audience: fruit yield and quality, irrigation system design and scheduling, fertiliser practice, soil chemical and physical parameters, and water movement.
Year two established a demonstration site on a grower’s property and intensively monitored soil moisture movement, soil conductivity and temperature. Another set of irrigation assessments was offered free of charge in 2014 but no growers accepted. Field days with a Vietnamese interpreter were held to communicate project activities and extension material was written and translated into Vietnamese.
The second year presented a very difficult operating environment. At the beginning of the strawberry season in Wanneroo a series of raids by the Australian Government was carried out on a property which operated a labour hire company using illegal labour. Although most of its operations impacted on the vegetable industry, there was a flow-on effect for the strawberry industry and labour was in very short supply over the 2014 season. Significant additional plantings meant an oversupply of fruit and poor prices. Several growers we worked with in 2014 are not growing in 2015. The overall downturn in profitability means less impetus for extra investment.
Growers who attended field days now have better awareness of the poor lateral movement of water, and hence nutrients, in WA sands as seen in the dye demonstrations. Whether this will translate to changes in grower practice is doubtful. An unintended outcome of the project was retraining in fumigation practice for all growers.
Many Vietnamese growers are over 50 years old. They have been growing for a long time and are set in their ways. Close to retiring, they see little point in investing in infrastructure, particularly when their properties are leased and likely to be rezoned ‘urban’ in the next five years. This has meant some growers are moving from Wanneroo and Carabooda to locations such as Bullsbrook and Muchea which are further north.
Power is concentrating in the hands of fewer, bigger players who have invested heavily in infrastructure including better irrigation design and soil moisture monitoring equipment. However, the more northerly growing areas mean colder night temperatures resulting in lower productivity per plant with current varieties.
The strawberry industry in Western Australia is unique in Australia in that export is viable although heavily influenced by prevailing exchange rates. Berry consumption is increasing due to perceived health benefits, but per capita consumption of strawberries is still well behind that of other countries.