Every time you buy a piece of fruit – spare a thought for the brilliant minds who work behind the scenes to make it safe, delicious and top quality. It’s the kind of expertise that brings the extra crunch to your apples and the perfect shape to your cherry.
We’ve found one such emerging leader in the horticulture industry. Jessica Fearnley’s contribution has just earned her the coveted Rural Achiever Award presented by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW.
Needless to say – apple and cherry growers have her on speed dial!
“The humble apple and cherry. You wouldn’t realise how much work goes into producing that one piece of fruit.”
Jess has the enviable job of visiting some of the state’s most spectacular orchards. “One of my favourite places to go is the orchards on top of Mount Canobolas where you can look back over Orange and really see some beautiful scenery,” she explains.
The humble apple and cherry. You wouldn’t realise how much work goes into producing that one piece of fruit.”
Jess touches base with farmers regularly to essentially help them grow better fruit.
“Growers will usually come to me with a problem or a challenge that they’re having on farm. That could be from a crop production issue or a market access problem that they’re having,” she says. Jess then develops a research project or workshop to offer some solutions. “It’s a really diverse job. I do lots of different projects. The growers that I work with are really lovely.”
Cherry good research
Jess has two key projects underway that could be ground-breaking. One of them is called Cherry Plus Traceability.
I don’t think horticulture gets the credit or the limelight it deserves. It’s seen as not a sexy crop or not a sexy industry.”
“We’re trying to look at the cherry supply chain and identify so-called pain points or an area where product might get caught up in. We are trying to trace the cherry throughout the whole supply chain,” Jess explains. This would enable authorities to locate the source should there be a biosecurity issue or a food safety incident.
“I don’t think horticulture gets the credit or the limelight it deserves. It’s seen as not a sexy crop or not a sexy industry.”
The other project Jess is focused on is a vulnerability assessment of the cherry industry to understand how farmers will be impacted by climate change. This involves climate modelling and looking at phases throughout the cherry life cycle from dormancy to harvest. The aim is to ascertain how different temperatures and rainfall rates will impact the fruit. Jess is already helping farmers implement strategies for climate adaptation.
“A lot of industries are using irrigation technologies and crop protection technologies such as identifying when and where pests are present and working out if we can shift our crop life cycle to be outside those ranges.
“A lot of growers are also implementing netting to reduce the impact of extreme events such as hail. We’ve also got a lot of growers looking to diversify into other crops that might suit their area a bit more,” explains Jess.
Career plan diversion and ancient soils
Scientific research can take years, so people like Jess don’t always have the answers straight away. “Some things happen quickly like identifying a new pest. Or if there’s a soil problem, we might already have research on that. Other things could be 10 years in the making if it’s developing a new protocol,” she explains.
Jess is incredibly knowledgeable in her field but interestingly she had been planning on a career as a PE teacher. It was her Year 10 biology teacher who first suggested she take up a job in agriculture. Having always loved science, she decided to give it a shot.
Jess studied Rural Science at the University of New England in Armidale and hasn’t looked back. A decision that’s proven to be a gift to so many farmers who rely on her. In part, because of her incredible passion for soil of all things.
“Soil is not dirt to me!”
Soil science is more involved than many may think. Jess loves the nutrition capabilities of soil and how we can manipulate that through natural remedies like compost and mulch as well as how fertiliser can change outcomes for farmers. Soil is home to the greatest diversity on the planet.
We do have limited soil capacity here in Australia. For us to be successful and compete in a global market, we’re going to have to do something about that.”
“For us in Australia, where we do have quite fragile, ancient soils, being able to understand how we can increase the capacity is so important. Even looking back to our past where Indigenous Australians were able to flourish very successfully and how we can incorporate those traditional practices into our modern agriculture is really interesting,” says Jess.
“We do have limited soil capacity here in Australia. For us to be successful and compete in a global market, we’re going to have to do something about that.”
Teeming with life
A teaspoon of soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth. “Tiny, tiny, tiny little organisms. It’s exciting,” says a beaming Jess. This knowledge and passion have landed this young woman the 2022 Rural Achiever Award handed down by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW. It’s broadened her own skill base and set the groundwork for some exciting future plans.
“I love being able to solve problems for people and make a difference for them. That’s why I’m quite interested in international ag helping subsistence farmers.” Jess has already been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to make a difference.
“Being able to provide these farmers with an alternate income could literally be the difference between them being able to provide food for their family versus not making any money.”
So next time you enjoy the colour, shape and texture of a piece of fruit – maybe spare a thought for the brilliant scientists like Jess who work tirelessly to get the most perfect piece of fruit into your bowl.