Thursday, 13 June 2013

You say "Sweetpotato"...

ACIAR-funded research in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has led to the recent publication of a best-practice manual for growing healthy sweetpotatoes. Project leader Michael Hughes describes how the successes of Australian research have been passed on to improve the livelihoods of PNG farmers...
Project leader Mike Hughes with the upcoming generation of PNG farmers



Friendship and collaboration producing win/win research would be how I summarise my recent ACIAR projects that led to the development of the newly published manual ‘Growing healthy sweetpotato: best practices for producing planting material'.

PNG's first on-farm screenhouse
for sweetpotato planting material
These projects began because the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry recognised sweetpotato as a crop of increasing importance. They funded the development of a process for removing disease-causing organisms (pathogens, e.g. viruses) from plants for a number of years so farmers could have high-quality planting material. This process, known as pathogen testing (or PT) has provided Australian sweetpotato growers with high-quality planting material leading to a 50% increase or more in marketable yield. It has enabled the massive productivity improvement the Australian industry has undergone in the last decade.

In PNG, the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) and Fresh Produce Development Agency (FPDA) were and still are keenly interested in improving the sustainability of sweetpotato. Sweetpotato (kaukau) is a major subsistence food, an increasingly important cash crop and very important for food security in PNG. ACIAR was the conduit to link these organisations, enabling Queensland to further refine the PT process and PNG to implement the latest technology in developing their own PT system.

Discussing course notes with Village Extension Worker, Fred Mori, wife Joyce and family

For myself, having worked in PNG before, these projects were a chance to revisit a country of happy memories, reaffirm my old networks/friendships with NARI and FPDA staff, and to meet and work with the enthusiastic young upcoming scientists who will lead the country’s future research and development. For the other members of the Australian team it was their first time to PNG, and in some cases their first time to travel out of Australia. The hospitality, friendship and dedication to developing the PT process shown by our partners and PNG farmers had everyone looking forward to returning to ‘the land of the unexpected’.

Inspecting growth of planting material
For the PNG team, these projects gave them their chance to come to Queensland and take a ‘hands on’ approach to learning the PT process. They met other researchers, extension officers, industry bodies such as Australian Sweetpotato Growers Inc. (ASPG), and were able to interact with farmers using PT planting material. These visits were a valued two-way learning experience from which many new friendships were formed.

Of particular importance to both PNG and Australian teams was that the learning and experiences gained in developing these PT systems should be made available to others who are interested in understanding or developing PT sweetpotato, both within and outside our countries. We wanted a manual that was small enough to be carried into the laboratory or screen houses, could be opened easily at any page, clearly showed the basics of the procedures discussed and had space for adding notes, new ‘tricks’ or  ideas.

Discussing planting material with Village Extension Worker, Agnes Jonah

The task then came down to the writing. This is where the friendship, mutual respect and teamwork developed during the project really shone. Some less confident in writing would add dot points and others would expand upon them. Questioning was constant, thought provoking, informative and productive.

We feel this has resulted in a manual that is user friendly and will be of great assistance to technicians and researchers new to PT sweetpotato, a field which will continue to expand in Australia, PNG and wherever quality sweetpotato is grown. I am thrilled with the result.

By Michael Hughes, ACIAR Project Leader

More information:
Refer to the manual Growing healthy sweetpotato: best practices for producing planting material manual.

The methods in the manual were developed as part of two ACIAR projects: Reducing pest and disease impact on yield in selected Papua New Guinea sweetpotato production systems, and Validating and documenting a strategy for producing virus-free sweetpotato planting material in Papua New Guinea.

See our Fact Sheet on ACIAR’s sweetpotato research.

Read our earlier blog on The importance of sweetpotatoes.

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