Meet Molly Black who is part of the new generation of plant doctors

Today’s guest blog post comes from Molly Black  who is part of the new generation of agronomists helping Australian farmers grow the best food and fibre in the world.

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I am the eldest daughter of an English dairy farmer and a city boy. While my Mum had a rural background, my Dad’s only exposure was at an agricultural high school. Luckily for me, they met in England and Mum took a chance migrating to Australia. Together they bought our first farm near Ophir in NSW, and started breeding Angus beef cattle.

In hindsight, growing up on the farm was a blessing I took for granted. I had parents that worked from home and so were always around (a bit of a downside when trying to fake a sickie from school!). I had acres of land to host my adventures, plenty of space to put between me and my sister when we fought, and a constant stream of puppies, chickens, calves and lambs. I was exposed to real life, and learnt to think for myself while considering the future.

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Little did I know how small that tractor really was?

When the drought hit, I was in primary school. While I’m sure most of it went over my head, as the drought continued and I aged, I started to notice what was going on. Many farms across the state found themselves without water or feed for their cattle. Many more families were struggling to find money to pay for fodder and trucked-in water. I will never forget coming home from school and not seeing my parents until sunset, usually crestfallen or crying and putting the gun back in the safe. Extreme circumstances meant they had to make tough decisions on a daily basis which sometimes meant it was more humane to euthanize cattle rather than watch them suffer  . It changed everything. We moved into crossing Waygu over the Angus for ease of calving, coincidentally that was where the market was heading as well.

Luckily, my parents had a side business selling mining supplies in town so we survived the drought financially, but Dad couldn’t look at the paddocks the same. In 2010, we moved to Mandurama – with the beautiful Belabula River flowing through the property almost constantly. I took agriculture in the HSC, and decided it just made sense to continue my interest by completing a Bachelor of Agricultural Science through La Trobe University.

While at high school, my involvement in agriculture wasn’t ‘cool’, University introduced me to like-minded people. La Trobe’s Ag society had a meet-up every Wednesday, nicknamed depending on the season e.g. calving season, lambing season. Since leaving university, I’ve found out that my degree was nicknamed ‘Agronomy 101’ due to the large amount of alumni agros.

City-living wasn’t really my style, so I graduated ASAP and the plan was to go back to the farm for a while.

Taking advantage of my new-found free time, I went overseas. Visiting Mum’s family dairy farm in the south of England was an eye-opener. My uncle is legally required to trim the hedges along the laneways, or he risks losing the farming subsidy. Cattle farmers in the UK are battling tuberculous, and there is a constant drama due to the severe divide between town and country.

I came back to Australia grateful it took me an hour to get to school and we had space!

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Is there a crop more striking than canola is flower 

By a stroke of luck, while I was overseas I managed to get through a Skype interview and gain a position as a graduate agronomist with Elders. The program is split by doing 6 months training in broadacre and 6 months in horticulture, with a 12 month placement specialisation. Going into the program, I assumed I’d choose to specialise in broadacre. I was sent across the country to Albany, WA for my first 6 months. Not only does Albany have one of the highest average rainfalls in WA, 2016 was considered a ‘big wet’. I went from beautiful volcanic soils to sand, gravel and more sand! Albany taught me many things, but especially that farmers are so innovative in the harshest of environments.

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Inspecting plants for a fodder demonstration near Jerramungup, WA

 I finished my 6 months, and in September moved to Perth to focus on horticulture. To my disbelief, I loved it! It was a combination of many factors that I put down to this 180 in thinking – clients willing to have a chat and pass on knowledge, the sheer complexity of fruit production and a passionate agronomist to shadow to name a few.

The 16/17 season for my clients was trailing anywhere between 3-5 weeks behind the last season. The Swan Valley table grape growers were looking forward to a decent yield, berries were going well and then, in a cruel twist of events, in 2 weeks they got 90mm and 114mm. The Swan River broke its banks, not only waterlogging the roots but also taking a decent amount of the unpicked crop with it.

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Table grapes going through veraison, Swan Valley WA

While trying to come up with a solution to the strong chance many roots had drowned, DAFWA (Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia) released a media alert that the Tomato Potato Psyllid (TPP) had been found in metro areas in Perth. TPP has the potential to destroy the potato industry in WA, as it is a vector for Zebra chip virus. This pest, now considered too wide-spread to eradicate, has caused me to be very wary of biosecurity. I used to think Australia was strict, and therefore safe, I know now that things will get through.

While I haven’t been in the hort game long, I feel like it is the place to be. There is so much going on and I am constantly in a state of confusion mixed with awe. A move back to the east coast to Griffith has given me the ability to start again, with some basic knowledge and an improved ability to put 2 and 2 together.

Beef cattle production will always be home, but for the future – My name is Molly Black and I am a horticultural agronomist.

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One of the many bonuses of the move to Griffith, free limes!

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