Massive growth in attendance as Protected Cropping Australia Conference gets underway on Gold Coast

"Everyone within the industry is expanding because there is demand for their product"

More than 575 delegates are expected to attend the Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) Conference 2019 on the Gold Coast, which began on Monday, which is a significant increase on the previous event.

One of the organisers and PCA Chair, Nicky Mann says last conference there was only 468, which shows an increase of more than 100 attendees this year. In addition, 83 booths have been sold in the trade exhibition, an increase of 22 on last time.

"The industry is definitely expanding," Ms Mann told FreshPlaza. "The new crop on the dock is medicinal cannabis, but everyone within the industry is expanding or getting bigger because there is demand for their product, which is exciting. A lot of the growers, about 70 per cent, are thinking of expanding. That's a huge part; when you think of your mum and pop operations that want to get a little bit better with a bit more skill. The medium growers are all expanding, and they are the majority. Then you have your big players, and the investment companies want to get bigger. There's a lot of investors at this conference this year. They want to get into the food space and this is a space in agriculture which minimises risk."

Photo: PCA Chair Nicky Mann with the conference's opening address

Speakers have attended from around the world, giving presentation on a range of topics from the market trends, to growing techniques, technology and innovation advancements, and bee pollination. Delegates heard from CEO and co-owner of Priva, Meiny Prins, who spoke about the challenge of change across the world, while a full day of presentations were held on medicinal cannabis for the first time.

"This conference to me is very exciting," Ms Mann said. "You can see everyone has got an element of buzz, and the stands have been really busy taking orders, which keeps the visitors happy and makes them come back. In this day and age, going to all the conferences is quite a bit taxing and an effort for the visitors but we need to be able to deliver to our delegates, and they find value."

The theme of the conference is "Seduction by Technology", which Ms Mann says has become an increasing important element for growers, and other members in the supply chain.

"The big focus with protected cropping in Australia is that we have joined together because of our technology," she said. "Everyone grows different crops, and we are generally not competitors at some stage, we are a collaborative little industry in Australia, and everyone is focused on expanding. We're trying to make it exciting because a lot of times people think of robots, and algorithms and things that are scary for farmers - but we are trying to make it 'sexy'. We want people to realise that the only way that we are going to expand really quickly is using the technology because we are precision agriculture to the very nth degree, so we have high tech systems; that run windows and screens, and vents opening and closing on weather conditions. Automation is what we are all about so we need to be efficient."

Photo: PCA Conference 2019 exhibitors' hall

While the industry does have its risks, Ms Mann says it is important to minimise those as much as possible through effective growing methods; having things under protection, using IPM really effectively in closed spaces, irrigation and technology in climate control. But the most important is being mindful of the sustainability of the industry, including recycling water, recycling nutrients and making sure that it looks after their social licence and doing the right thing about the environment.

"The only thing that is concerning for me is the lack of skilled people to take on these growing positions," Ms Mann said. "Our focus is very much on education and empowering the youth and really building capacity within our industry to get people in among the crops, getting experience and learning how to grow. I think in 10 years our industry will be battling to find skilled workers to do this work, because its relenting. We grow every day, we are not seasonal, we don't go out of production - so it takes a lot of willpower and a lot of desire to keep going."

Photo: Emily Rigby gives an overview of Medical Cannabis industry in Australia

The conference continues Tuesday with more plenary sessions, and there will be two farm tours on Wednesday.

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