Extension Officer spotlight: Belinda Billing, tea tree Extension Officer Northern Queensland

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A three-year project funded, by AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program and led by Queensland-based agronomic consultancy Farmacist, is taking a collaborative approach to extension to drive greater adoption of improved production techniques to drive improved economic, social and environmental benefits for the tea tree industry.

 

Farmacist Extension Officer Belinda Billing and her colleague Alice Moore are working with tea tree growers, oil producers and service providers to deliver industry-led extension activities in the Northern Rivers and North Queensland. 

 

We sat down with Belinda, based in far North Queensland, to learn more about the project, the concept of “extension” and how she will be working with growers to accelerate the adoption of research and development on-farm. 

Belinda, can you please tell us about your project in three sentences or less?

The Enhanced extension for the Australian tea tree industry project addresses a gap in extension and communication activities for tea tree growers and their advisors. The project is designed to provide extension service to tea tree growers, oil producers and service providers which will accelerate the adoption of research and development with a focus on projects funded by AgriFutures Tea Tree Oil Program.

Alice will be working with growers in Northern NSW, and I will be working with tea tree growers in north Queensland. Our role will be to help growers access information from existing research on tea tree production and provide advice to help solve agronomic issues.

How do you define extension and why is it important (particularly for the tea tree oil industry)?

Agricultural extension is about understanding the challenges and aspirations of an industry, such as the tea tree industry and creating science-based activities and resources that support individual producers. Extension is also about relationships and understanding the challenges and aspirations of each individual enterprise so that support and guidance provided is appropriate and useful. 

Because of the size of the industry, its maturity as an industry (considered a cottage industry only a short time ago) and in the absence of an extension program, producers have often been left to solve problems and develop solutions alone. In some respects, this has benefited the industry. In northern Queensland growers have developed a close and supportive network, sharing information among each other, and offering advice to new members of the industry. In the absence of a dedicated extension program and activities for growers, particularly in northern Queensland, growers have learned from trial and error where perhaps the answers already existed. Presenting this information to growers in an accessible and targeted way, can save growers money, time, and help with solving problems. Extension staff can also assist in supporting strong networks similar to the group in north Queensland. Extension activities like events and resources can support the sharing of key learnings and grower experiences.

What’s your background and how has your career to date led you to leading/working on the tea tree oil extension program?

In my career so far, I have worn many hats from education to communications, spanning journalism, teaching, natural resource management and applied research and extension in agriculture. 

For the past six years I worked with Sugar Research Australia running applied extension programs focussed on herbicide and nutrient management for sustainable production in the wet and dry tropics. And prior to this I worked with Reef Catchments Natural Resource Management (NRM) group in Mackay Whitsunday coordinating projects related to sustainable agriculture and innovation in sugarcane and horticulture. 

Although I began my career in journalism, my passion for sustainable and thriving rural communities led me to work in NRM and agriculture. In these roles, my skills in interpreting, applying, and communicating science in a practical and meaningful way has been a great benefit. 

How will this project and your involvement in the north benefit the tea tree oil industry?

The tea tree growers of north Queensland are doing a fantastic job of producing high quality tea tree oil on productive farms. However, they have questions around adequate nutrition, pest, disease, and irrigation management. This project will provide them with support to answer some of these questions and, to identify where further research is needed. 

What is the best piece of professional advice you have ever been given?

Develop strong and extensive networks, get involved and ask questions. When I began working in NRM I was encouraged to build a network of experts across a range of disciplines and when I had questions, to ask the people who are in the best position to answer. I was also encouraged to be available to help others. This gave me the opportunity to strengthen my knowledge and experience and my relationships. I have kept this up and it has proven invaluable over the years. 

What are you most looking forward to learning about from tea tree oil growers and the supply chain?

Tea tree growers have developed so many of their own solutions and methods on the farm. I am interested to know what they have learned about growing the best crop over the years and how they concluded that they had found the best solution or method. 

As the international market for tea tree oil grows there is real pressure on Australian producers to develop a marketing edge. I’m looking forward to working with the growers and ATTIA to better understand other aspects of the industry such as how we can be sure we are producing the best quality product in the most economical way.

In three sentences or less by the end of the three year project, what do you hope to have achieved?

I hope by the end of the project we will have developed useful resources that summarise the most important agronomic information regarding tea tree nutrition, pest, disease and weed management from previous industry research. 

On the ground, I hope to work with northern growers to undertake farm-based activities to improve our understanding of the crop and what we can do better, such as develop basic methods and guidelines for managing irrigation across a crop cycle for northern growers.    

I am excited to be working with the tea tree growers and learning about a relatively new and dynamic industry. I am looking forward to getting to know the growers and understanding what is important to them and how that fits with our work and the bigger picture for the tea tree industry. 

 

Contact:

Belinda Billing, Northern Queensland Extension Officer 

Ph 0476 583 137 | Belindab@farmacist.com.au 

 

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