Dr Nicola Watts and Ms Heather Noonan ‘crack the capsicum’ to open this first conference.

THE VegNET Gippsland project delivered by the East Gippsland Food Cluster staged the first ever conference for women involved in horticulture at the Ellinbank Centre recently.
Forty women including vegetable growers, industry service providers, government representatives from all six of Gippsland’s local government areas plus neighbouring Casey and Cardinia, Agriculture Victoria, amongst others heard a range of speakers in the morning and actively participated in Special Interest Group discussions during the afternoon.
Themed ‘Water, Waste and Wellness’, the conference honed in on grower concerns identified in the first year by the project’s growers’ survey. Water security, opportunities for value-adding to increase the return on surplus or sub-standard but nutrient-dense produce, and, wellness with particular emphasis on mental health, are integral to sustainable success in horticulture.
As more women are working and investing in the sector, the event was designed to facilitate learning, share opportunities and develop action plans for women at all levels of horticultural production including processing.
The conference, called an ‘Advance’ to signify progress, was sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank’s Regional and Agribusiness unit located at Warragul and the regional manager, Heather Noonan opened the event together with the East Gippsland Food Cluster Executive Officer, Dr Nicola Watts, by “cracking capsicums” that are grown in abundance in Gippsland, particularly in the west.
The keynote address on ‘Water, Waste and Wellness’ was delivered by Nicole Griffin, general manager Assets and Commercial Business for Gippsland Water, the authority responsible for the Soil & Organic Recycling Facility (SORF) at Dutson.
Nicole, a qualified agronomist, was born in Narrabri, NSW, and has a diverse and impressive background in horticulture including cotton, broadacre, disease prevention and product development.
Nicole, who sits on the State Committee for the Waste Management Association of Victoria presented some compelling data about water security needed to ensure the world’s growing population can be fed and the need for innovation in turning waste to beneficial products both to ensure the wellness of people and the planet.
The keynote address was followed by equally engaging presentations on the economic and social business cases for improved and inclusive collaboration in Gippsland especially in relation to food production and value-extraction delivered by Dr Nicola Watts of the East Gippsland Food Cluster; insights on women’s leadership in horticulture from Jill Briggs of Rural Training Initiatives who has personal experience of growing more than 1000 young leaders in the Australian vegetable industry; and Dr Jessica Lye, AUSVEG Biosecurity Manager who held the audience spellbound with her speech on growing wellness and food security through increased awareness of biosecurity.
Fiona Owen, the new CEO of Gippsland Women’s Health was unavoidably absent due to her assistance being required at the birth of a grandchild.
Gippsland Women In Horticulture sought to ‘pay it forward’ to an organisation working to improve health outcomes, ReActivate Latrobe Valley, through their ‘Get Stuffed’ program and co-director, Emma Lewis, gave an illuminating overview of the progress the group, largely volunteers, is making to increase vegetable consumption.
Donations were collected during the event registration progress and will be formally handed over to ReActivate Latrobe Valley in December.
The afternoon’s Special Interest Group discussions narrowed the focus of the Advance to six key areas for change: Water and Irrigation, Organics, New Generation Women in Horticulture, Biosecurity, Mental Health, and Industry Leadership.
Group leaders, all experts on the subject matter, identified what was working well in Gippsland, what was not, and strategies for making improvements.
The Industry Development Officer for VegNET Gippsland and event organiser, Shayne Hyman, will ensure the work done by the groups is directed to influential decision makers for attention and, where possible, action.
“In a very short time participants were able to establish rapport and develop a short list of industry imperatives for women across horticulture in Gippsland by leveraging the strengths to address areas for positive change,” Ms Hyman said.
“The energy and enthusiasm employed was terrific and the ‘to-do list’ is achievable.”
Feedback from the inaugural Gippsland Women In Horticulture Advance strongly calls for a similar forum in 2018 as one of the many events delivered by the project to improve vegetable businesses across Gippsland through access to and adoption of research and development and best practice.
The Gippsland VegNET project is delivered by the East Gippsland Food Cluster, a not-for-profit collaborative network of Eastern Gippsland agrifood businesses, and funded by Hort Innovation using the vegetable levy and funds from the Australian Government. The current project concludes in April 2019.