Sandi Cleary, Production Horticulture

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The word “professional” or “expert” can be used quite loosely when describing individuals nowadays.

Teenagers think #hashtagging or uploading social media content spruiking themselves qualifies them to be “public figures” or experienced in photo editing … Come on; we know you only use Instagram filters.

Luckily, we still have the “real” professionals who know their industry inside and out. Cue Sandi Cleary – TAFE NSW graduate and most notably recognised as the 2016 Australian Institute of Horticulture “Student of the Year”.

Sandi’s interest in the production horticulture and organic farming industries began with a dream of one day being able to grow her own produce and highlight the importance of organics in farming. “I really wanted to highlight benefits of organic produce and ensure people know the difference between ingesting harmful chemicals and the benefits of un-sprayed produce.”

Sandi began her TAFE studies in Wollongbar, before moving south to study two Diploma qualifications in Coffs Harbour. “I have successfully gained Diploma level qualifications in horticulture and organic farming.”

After years of study, Sandi purchased land at Talarm in the Nambucca Valley, perfectly suited to growing an array of organic produce. “I have an organic blueberry orchard and also grow chilli, Russian garlic, pineapples, bananas and passionfruit when available. I have a catchment down at the back of my property which I use to water my crop and gain access to water in steaming away weeds. All run-off goes back into the dam and because I don’t use any chemicals, this means the nice healthy Perch that live in the catchment will taste even better on my plate.”

Sandi operates her orchard organically and has implemented the industry relevant practices and cutting-edge technology learned at TAFE NSW to ensure her produce is grown ethically. “I learned an array of principles in production horticulture from my dedicated teacher, Mark Percival. He has been an amazing mentor and has allowed me to find an avenue (at TAFE) in finding the knowledge, research and techniques that I can successfully put into practice on my own property. The techniques I have implemented include an integrated weed and pest management system, where I use hot steam to eliminate weeds instead of using harmful chemicals. I also place bait-traps that attract pests and capture them from eating crops. Another effective technique I have implemented is the introduction of ‘Expert 365’, a soil moisture monitoring software. This allows me to take a soil sample and have it analysed to determine the soils’ moisture holding capacity. I can then set a ‘refill point’ for my particular soil when it requires more or less water. When the soil moisture reaches below that point, a ‘recipe’ is generated that tells me when I need to water, how much and for how long. All that information is based on the total length of irrigation drip lines that are in place, the space between the emitters and the flow rate through the drip lines.

“The software monitors the moisture with two

probes set at different depths in the soil. This information is collected via telemetry, sent back to their head office in Brisbane, where it is converted into an algorithm and then uploaded to an app. I login to the app daily to check how much moisture is in the soil at the depth of each probe and to see if any recipes are generated. The system will also send me an alarm if a recipe requires attention and I have not dealt with it within a certain period of time. Implementing this software will allow me to increase my product yield by up to 20%. I also avoid soil erosion, by ensuring rows of blueberry trees are planted across the land (on my property) instead of up and down, allowing me to slow down the water movement.”

Gearing up for her bumper blueberry crop this year, Sandi has already been delivering to customers through diversifying her offering, producing an array of products. “I have started my own business (Blushing Blueberries) and have created a variety of blueberry inspired products. I currently produce a blueberry jam, chutney, syrup and a shrub … essentially a cordial that goes extremely well with vodka or gin on a hot day.”

Sandi sells her products all over the Mid North Coast and outlines that her produce is already catching the attention of notable celebrities. “I often attend the Coffs Coast Growers’ Markets, Bellingen Community Markets and the Harbourside Markets to promote and sell my products. My blueberry syrup was actually used by celebrity chef Matt Golinski at the recent Tastings on Hastings event in Port Macquarie. He used the syrup as a base for a blueberry and ricotta pizza.”

With exponential growth in the local blueberry industry, Sandi lauds the opportunity for organics and reiterates the importance of good quality produce. “As an organic grower, I see huge advantages and potential in the market. Customers are demanding more and more to know where their food has come from, that it’s safe, it hasn’t been sprayed and it has been organically certified. In the near future, I’ll be able to meet that demand, and I think it’s an extremely exciting time. There’s a huge future for organics locally, nationally and internationally, and I’ll be looking to export my products overseas.”

TAFE NSW offers a range of courses in horticulture, production horticulture and conservation and land management. If you or someone you know are interested in studying one of these courses, drop into TAFE NSW at the Coffs Harbour Education Campus, call 1300 628 233 or visit                                    www.northcoasttafe.edu.au.

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