A berry excellent Easter Show

5 April 2018

Utilising her understanding of soil-borne pathogens, agriculture student Marie-France Courtois has won the 2018 Chris Russell Medal of Excellence. Awarded at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, Courtois claimed top honours for exploring the impact of soil organic amendments to blueberries.

The Chris Russell competition is coordinated by the AG Institute Australia and is open to undergraduate students in agriculture, nature resource managements and or/ animal science studies and have completed a research project as part of their studies.

For this prestigious award, students were asked to prepare an essay about their research and to deliver a presentation which outlined the aims, methodology, results, agricultural applications and future directions.

For her Honours project, Marie-France Courtois investigated the effect of soil organic amendments on soil-borne pathogens of blueberries.

"The Australian Blueberry industry is valued at $122 million at the farm gate, with disease management of high priority. One of the main soil-borne diseases of blueberries is Phytophthora, an Oomycete (fungus-like) pathogen that colonises the root system leading to rootlet necrosis. Importantly, this pathogen thrives in soils that have low organic matter which often relates to poor microbial diversity" said Marie-France.

Marie-France's solution lies in a strategy called soil organic amendments whereby composted plant or animal material is added to soil to induce disease suppressive soils. Disease suppressive soils are soils in which pathogens cannot establish or persist. This strategy creates an environment that is less favourable to the pathogen and is more sustainable than the use of chemical interventions.

"When farmers choose to apply organic amendments as a disease management strategy, they contribute to a sustainable future for generations to come" said Marie-France. This research could have potential to rise to challenges and responsibilities associated with feeding tomorrow's world.

Marie-France will now go on to represent NSW at the National Awards in April.

"I would love to see a shift towards more environmentally friendly practices in agriculture and I intend to make it a personal goal. I truly believe that many questions would be answered by improving our understanding of microbes in their natural environment. I am delighted to have been chosen to represent NSW and I am really looking forward to hearing about the other participants' projects." said Marie-France.

Associate Professor Daniel Tan is a Director of AG Institute Australia and an Academic with the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney.

"We had very high-quality presentations from all three finalists representing their respective universities this year" said Daniel. "Congratulations must be extended to our deserving winner, Marie-France. Applications of her research on disease suppressive soils can potentially contribute to healthy crops and food security. Marie-France's work also showcases the excellent research training in plant pathology and crop science at the Sydney Institute of Agriculture within the University of Sydney.

Winning the 2018 Chris Russell Medal of Excellence was no easy feat. Each of the finalists presented to a high standard with the audience impressed by their research. The University of Sydney's Sam Coggins presented his findings on leveraging terroir to alleviate the cost-price squeeze for Australian farmers. Melanie Carr from Western Sydney University explored the impact that community cooking has on food and packaging waste and social connectedness.

Honoured guest Chris Russell was also present on the night proudly announcing that for the first time, the Chris Russell Medal of Excellence was sponsored by AusCott. Harvey Gaynor, Director of AusCott was present on the night and provided some exciting insights into the future of cotton in Australia. "We are working towards sustainability with advances in Biotechnology reducing the need for pesticides while also improving water management by doubling our cotton production per megalitre of water" said Harvey Gaynor.

Chris Baldock, winner of the Chris Russell Medal of Excellence in 2016 was also present to discuss what life is like after winning the prestigious award. Chris is now completing his PhD with Dr Roz Deaker, a lecturer in rhizobiology and nitrogen fixation of legumes, and Dr Neil Wilson a Post-Doctoral researcher. His research focuses on understanding the behaviour of bacterial communities on and within agricultural plants to manipulate them.

"I use a combination of culturing, plant model systems and a suite of analytical tools to understand and predict patterns of community variation." said Chris Baldock. Chris Russell is an agricultural scientist who has spent over 40 years working in over 30 countries. As a long-standing fellow of the AIA he is an avid supporter of the students who will be the face of agriculture in the years to come.

Students wishing to enter the 2019 competition should contact the AG Institute Australia for further information.