No rest for pests as Horticulture students learn alternative farming methods

Diploma of Horticulture students at Michael Unwin Winery
Diploma of Horticulture students at Michael Unwin Winery

Federation TAFE Diploma of Horticulture students are getting the opportunity to engage directly with industry through visits to three distinct horticultural enterprises around the Ballarat region as part of the "Define the Pest Problem" unit.

The visits will bring real-world experience and relevance to the cohort’s studies as they hear how diverse horticultural organisations manage or eradicate pests, weeds, and diseases particular to their settings using methods from organic farming and biological control, through to minimising pesticide use.

Federation TAFE Horticulture Teacher Allan Luciani-Crout says, “It is a great experience for the student group. We are looking at pests from a broad context including weeds, animal pests, fungal and insect pests that affect horticulture, agriculture, and conservation in general, exploring how sites may face a range of these problems, and about managing them using very different control methods.”

Students gained valuable exposure to production horticulture when they met with winemaker, Michael Unwin during the first site visit to Michael Unwin Winery in Windermere, known for its award-winning wines and regenerative farming, sustainable growing and production methods.

Students learned about the management of vineyard pests like hares and powdery mildew, and the winery’s relaxed and natural approach to pest control including not spraying chemicals on crops, "refusing to see weeds", breeding guineafowl to graze the property and fertilise the soil, having a resident cat, and seasonally slashing, mowing and mulching with weeds.

Stephanie Camera and Vicki Bethell were amongst the student group on the excursions.

“We had a private tour of Michael Unwin’s viticulture farm through the vineyard and the processing areas and tasted fresh grapes from the vines,” said Stephanie.

“Production viticulture with private ownership allows management the freedom to operate and make decisions based on their ethos They don't need to worry about the appearance of their raw product as it is not seen by the consumer so the grapes for wine can be misshapen, any colour and blemished, unlike table grapes. This means the treatment relation to pest control and handling of the grapes can differ,” said Vicki.

Students next explored pest management strategies within a nursery with a visit to Avalon Nursery in Haddon, a diverse and thriving plant nursery housing native plants, fruit trees, ornamental flowering plants, groundcovers, feature foliage and climbing plants, two acres of landscaped gardens, and a large grass area. At the nursery the students discussed control methods like spraying for fungal diseases in the stone fruit trees, and the timing and cost of such controls.

“The site nursery manager showed us how they manage stock and talked about different pest issues. It was a completely different environment to the vineyard and a helpful contrast. The two businesses had some similar issues but different approaches and management strategies,” Stephanie said.

Vicki was also struck by the differences, “In contrast to the viticulture site visit, the overall presentation of the retail nursery and the products is vitally important to create a well-maintained environment suitable for consumers.  Avalon devotes much of its resources to controlling pests and weeds in the gardens, paths and the pots for sale are kept in check as much as possible.”

Students rounded out their understanding of pest problems in a very different environment when they visited premier outdoor sports stadium, Mars Stadium and spoke with the Grounds Manager about weeds and pests in the context of the “AFL standard” sports turf and at Ballarat sportsgrounds in general.

Stephanie who hopes to find employment in land management or research is grateful for the chance to get out of the classroom and see horticultural businesses first-hand.

“I loved being out on-site and getting to see behind the scenes. It was also helpful in making industry contacts. I’m grateful for the horticultural knowledge I’ve gained at Federation TAFE and experiences like these,” she said.

Vicki agrees, “Excursions are a highlight of our horticulture program as they allow us to connect our classroom learning with the industry. We are fortunate to have welcoming organisations in Ballarat who are willing to share their insights with us.”

“I have always been interested in horticulture and agriculture and I love the practical nature of learning that TAFE offers. This study comes after a change in career after many years in management and I am finding the horticulture industry refreshing.”

This industry-collaborative approach to education is part of Federation’s Co-operative Education Model, where from 2025 all university and TAFE programs will be designed, developed, and delivered in collaboration with industry partners.

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