Everyday plant health heroes

Irene Kernot

Research Program Manager Horticulture, Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR)

Increasingly I link plant health to a “one health” approach. The health of a plant is closely linked to the health of the soil and the health of the farmer and their family.

How did you choose your job? Or did it choose you?

Not a single choice, rather one thing leading to another and never letting an opportunity go by. I was encouraged to apply for my current role in international horticulture research and although the prospect of working in so many different farming systems was daunting it is rewarding beyond measure.

How long have you worked in this industry?

It is 43 years since I started working in agriculture research with the last 28 in horticulture. I’d call myself an extension officer who has drifted into research management. My current role with ACIAR since mid-2018 is letting me bring all that experience together in a role where I work with a very large range of industries across diverse geographies and even more diverse farming communities.

What does plant health mean to you?

It is a pillar of all the farming systems my program funds. Increasingly I link plant health to a “one health” approach. The health of a plant is closely linked to the health of the soil and the health of the farmer and their family. In Bougainville a project I support saw a link between farmer health and farm productivity. This led to an initiative taking health workers into the field with horticulture officers to address all of the farm and farmer health issues together.

Plant health research is also fascinatingly diverse and growing even more so as we understand better the role of the microbiome and how our practice can influence it. Always something new to find and a new strategy to research.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

As a manager it is about helping other researchers make a difference.

I am proud of working with the Queensland banana research team to develop and deliver a comprehensive program of research to address the incursion of Fusarium TR4 and now extending that research to support growers in the Philippines, Indonesia, the PDR of Laos and Africa to manage TR4. The banana research community is relatively small and bringing researchers to work together grows the capacity in our region to protect one of the most important horticulture crops for human nutrition. The projects combine social sciences with biophysical sciences to develop biosecurity solutions combining knowledge of the disease and the barriers to adoption of changed practices.

The plant health doctor program across the Pacific is delivering factual knowledge of pests and diseases to communities and helping growers to manage crops using accurate diagnosis of problems and providing practical management solutions. This project is led by a team at the University of Queensland and the capacity they are establishing at village level will help to provide the eyes for a robust biosecurity system taking advantage of the people who work in the farms and gardens every day and their knowledge of what is in their crops.

The virus free sweetpotato seed being delivered in PNG through a Central Queensland University project is exciting as it delivers better yield and better eating quality from a crop that has been grown there as long as anyone can remember. The project is showing small growers how they can adapt practices from large commercial farms to their scale and use the productivity benefits to improve livelihoods for the whole village.

The projects I am proud of supporting are those where the application of the research delivers change for growers because the solutions are smart, simple and make sense. For this I am grateful to the research teams willing to work in international development and who are prepared to develop solutions that don’t rely on more expensive resources.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Before COVID-19 a typical day was being in one of ACIAR’s partner countries, most often in the Pacific and PNG. I would spend time with researchers reviewing their research programs and going in to the field to talk to smallholder growers to learn their perspective on the problems and understand how the research I fund can make a difference to their livelihoods. In the Highlands of New Guinea that can involve a rough car ride and a walk into a village. There I am welcomed by the community, there are often a few speeches and then we go and look at the amazing and diverse gardens they grow producing everything from coconuts and cocoa to western and indigenous vegetables and root crops like yams and sweetpotato.

These days it is one web meeting after another, keeping in touch with the far flung research teams over the internet. I definitely look forward to getting back in the field.

What advice would you give anybody wanting to get into the industry?

The first job is always the hardest. But pathways to a career are diverse and can be unpredictable. Get practical experience any way you can and take every opportunity to work in new and different systems.

Communication skills are a key to any job but to deliver practical, adoptable research solutions getting to understand growers and appreciate the context of the research you will do will always stand you in good stead.


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