IN THE FIELD: Principal Research Scientist with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr Stephen Harper at the Gatton Research Facility.
IN THE FIELD: Principal Research Scientist with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr Stephen Harper at the Gatton Research Facility. Lachlan McIvor

Planting seeds overseas benefits Queensland productivity

AS A young graduate when Dr Stephen Harper first completed his formal studies in agricultural science, he had not envisaged how fulfilling and rewarding a career in agriculture would be.

He is now Principal Research Scientist at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries' Gatton Research Facility, and conducts research that strengthens Queensland vegetable productivity.

Through the knowledge gained in the field his experience is helping build food security in developing nations.

Dr Harper currently leads research projects, one of which aims at improving the productivity of alliums (garlic and shallot), capsicum and chilli jointly in Queensland and Indonesia.

The research is allowing department scientists to address productivity constraints in traditional and emerging crops, in particular garlic and true shallot for which there is no industry levy.

The project also looks at improving root systems in capsicum crops to improve nitrogen fertiliser efficiency.

The projects development began in 2010 with a scoping study before it was officially initiated 18 months later.

The continuity of the project over the past six years has brought plenty of progress so far.

"We've never been able to do work on garlic and my predecessors in the department had developed some superb garlic varieties but productivity of these lines had run down over time through high disease and suboptimal agronomy,” Dr Harper said.

"So this project was an opportunity to reinvigorate that.

"We've also imported about 30 tropical garlic varieties from Asia and we're now in the process of assessing these and have almost completed the second season of field evaluation. It's a long process to bring varieties in.”

The research offers an opportunity to identify early garlic varieties that can extend the Queensland season and offset garlic importation.

While garlic is certainly not a new crop, it has never had focused research attention in Australia since the industry does not have a research and development levy.

"The opportunity to improve the productivity was there,” he said.

"There was also the opportunity to potentially develop new product types such as a tropical true bulb shallot.

"Some of these types of products that are consumed greatly in Asia are not necessary available in Australia. We feel there may well be a small market for them in Australia and there is likely potential for export back into Asia.”

In Indonesia, pepper yellow leaf curl virus is a critical disease carried by white fly that decimates chilli (capsicum) crops and represents a biosecurity threat to Queensland capsicum production.

The research in Indonesia is developing genetic resistance which will help Indonesian chilli production and allow Australia to protect its capsicum production in the event of an incursion.

"We don't grow a lot of capsicum in the Lockyer Valley but Queensland grows about 85% of Australia's capsicums,” he said.

"We've actually screened our main commercial cultivator and it's highly susceptible to it.

"The screening for resistance enables us to develop resistant germplasm in the event that an incursion occurs.

"Research in Indonesia has included surveys to identify the proximity of the disease to Australia and the disease is endemic right across the Indonesian archipelago including the islands most proximal to the Australian mainland and therefore represents a considerable risk.”

The project is jointly funded by the Indonesian and Queensland governments under the Australian Federal Government's agricultural aid program, the Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

Often growers can struggle to see the importance of government money going overseas but the work done by researchers like Dr Harper also directly helps Australian growers.

"There are distinct benefits in having researchers travelling overseas and identifying new products and opportunities that can support Australian agricultural development and rural economies” he said.

"Asia is a big region, you can see from the data that it is the most rapidly growing part of the world's economy and there will be opportunities for Australia in terms of export.

"What we need to do is identify where our opportunity is and this in a small way allows us to identify some unique opportunities in Asia.”

There is still plenty more to be done but Dr Harper relishes the challenge around each corner, with his work allowing him to fulfil a passion for helping impoverished people as well as Queensland farmers.

"When I first studied agricultural science I never had the expectation I'd be so fortunate to have a career that would enable me to work both in Queensland and developing countries,” he said.

"It's been a remarkable opportunity for me and it's not a one way thing, it's two way, we not only give something, we get a lot back in return and that's really important for Queensland as well.”

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