Everyday plant health heroes

Jess Lehmann

Project Officer, Plant Health Australia

We need to minimise the impact of pests and diseases on our plants as they give us the air we breathe, food we eat, clothes we wear and lifestyle we enjoy.

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

I would say I was born into it. I was privileged to grow up on a large mixed farm enterprise of both irrigation and dryland of some 15,000 acres. It generally produces 10,000 to 15,000 bales of cotton each year. We also crop durum wheat, barley, chickpeas, mungbeans, faber beans and canola. Including 1,000 head of Speckle Park cattle with an opportunity feedlot being used to enable this stock to be prepared for marketing to Woolworths. My father, Chris Lehmann, was the first independent cotton consultant in Australia and my grandpa, Vic Melbourne, is one of the first pioneers to farm cotton in north-west NSW in the 1960s. It’s safe to say with this background I have followed in their footsteps by treading my own path in raising the profile of agriculture research and plant health.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I have been employed in agriculture since finishing school back in 2003.  I have had many job titles and responsibilities in that time, mainly within the Australian cotton industry focusing on industry advocacy and hands on scientific research projects in the field. In one role I was a part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) project run by Dr Robert Mensah at the Australian Cotton Research Institute near Narrabri. This was a fascinating agronomic experience for me as it was a Cotton Research & Development Corporation (CRDC) funded project based on a chance-discovery of the pest-resistant extracts of the butterfly pea plant. Our role was to see how these characteristics could be exploited for the cotton industry. Being part of an applied entomology research team was exciting and no day was ever the same. The thrill for me was in the details of that role, counting the rows, bolls, flowers, plants, beneficial insects and pests and collecting specimens, then documenting all of this while in the field.

I thrive in industry networking events, project management and the hands-on aspects within my role at Plant Health Australia (PHA). I enjoy working in our preparedness and RD&E project management team to enhance the industry’s ability to prepare, recognise, report, and respond to exotic and endemic pest incursions on farms and in Australia.

This is my seventeenth year working within the agriculture industry that I find ever so rewarding.

What does plant health mean to you?

For me plant health is vital to keeping our Australian agriculture industry free from pests and diseases. This requires rigorous global awareness as it continues to be under threat. With the volume of trade between countries, a changing climate and people movement we must prepare more for these pests to reach Australia. Plant health can be everyone’s responsibility. We need to minimise the impact of pests and diseases on our plants as they give us the air we breathe, food we eat, clothes we wear and lifestyle we enjoy.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

My greatest achievement is my input towards the world first biologically based pesticide called Sero-X® to support global food security. It was developed from the butterfly pea plant as a result of working alongside my late fathers’ cotton industry friend Dr Mensah in collaboration with Innovate Agriculture Pty Ltd.  With the result of over 15 years of trials, I think it is great to see a research project reach commercialisation stage for growers to be able to reap the benefits on farm. It’s exciting knowing that the Australian cotton industry can be on the forefront of developing technology that has the potential to extend well beyond the cotton industry and Australia on a global scale. Overall, it’s an excellent opportunity for the cotton industry to be given an environmentally acceptable alternative to current pest management strategies.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Working in biosecurity, my days can be busy with project management tasks with various agricultural industries addressing priority plant health issues, building genuine partnership approaches between industry and government, and ensuring members can be involved in, and can contribute to, policy making and direction setting on major ongoing issues to minimise plant pest impacts on Australia to boost industry productivity and profitability, and enhance market access.

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

I may be biased but agriculture is the best industry to work in and the more enthusiastic people we have in the industry the more promising our future will be. Whether you are a farmer, researcher, scientist, policy developer or agronomist, everyone is a part of the overall equation. I suggest find yourself an industry mentor to guide you with your career and network with as many people as possible. I surround myself with a combination of other bright minded innovative youth and inspiring older generations who all share my vision to keep that flame alive in an amazing industry that produces the food we eat and clothes you wear.

Download pdf – Jess Lehmann