Crop Protection

Soilborne Disease Expert Named Bayer Horticulture Researcher of the Year

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17 April 2024, AU: 30 years of work in post-harvest management of tree fruits and vegetables, and soilborne diseases in horticultural crops has seen Michael Rettke named the 2023 Bayer Horticulture Researcher of the Year at the annual Hort Connections conference.

Michael works on soilborne diseases of potatoes, onions, carrots and brassica vegetables in his role as a Research Scientist at the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI). His research outcomes have resulted in long-term benefits to the industry – accomplishments well deserving of applause at the Horticulture Awards for Excellence Gala Dinner in Adelaide.

Currently, Michael’s main focus is on both understanding soilborne disease risks so horticultural growers can make decisions prior to planting their vegetable crops and recognise what risks they’re facing, and also on management solutions to overcome these issues.

“My colleagues and I have developed PREDICTA® PT which is a quantitative DNA-based service for the potato industry, and it is one of the main tools I work on in understanding disease risk,” Michael explains.

“We measure the amount of DNA of specific pathogens in the soil using large soil samples and we then validate that against what actually happens in the field so we can get a good understanding of disease risk for certain pathogens prior to planting. It is very good technology.”


Video: SARDI Research Scientist Michael Rettke has been named the 2023 Bayer Horticulture Researcher of the Year for his work in post-harvest management of tree fruits and vegetables, and soilborne diseases in horticultural crops.

Michael says another focus area is fusarium basal rot of onions, which can cause losses of up to 50 per cent in a paddock.

“Not a lot of research has been done in Australia prior to this project, so we have essentially started from a low baseline, but are going right through to looking at integrated control solutions.”

Looking after soils is Michael’s ultimate aim. As an extremely precious resource, he and his colleagues’ research aims to sustain the greatest environmental asset that powers Australia’s agricultural industry.

“Without good productive soils, we are not going to be able to feed the world, as local and global food security is very reliant on having high quality soils to grow our crops in,” Michael passionately shares.

“By mitigating the pathogens in those soils, which is achieved by reducing or maintaining them at low levels, having other soil biology to offset that, or having chemistry or other physical factors to manage the impact of the pathogens, is very important.”

However, Michael’s love for soils and work in soilborne diseases was preceded by a long term interest in root, bulb and tuber vegetables, making a career in the horticultural space something Michael long had his sights on. Growing up on a mixed farming operation on the Darling Downs in southern Queensland sparked Michael’s interest in potatoes and onions from a young age.

“I have wanted to be a researcher since primary school, and I think one of my favourite things about what I do is that I get to work with potatoes and onions, which I liked as a kid, and today I still get to work with them,” Michael says.

Now, over three decades later, as he reflects on his expansive career, it is clear his work as a soilborne disease expert is highly regarded by the industry and his peers.

“In my early career there was a problem people had been working on for a while to measure sulphur dioxide concentration on-farm in dried apricots, and they had tried many ways,” Michael says.

“I guess I brought in a different perspective, a more basic approach that also capitalised on all the good work they had done. We actually came up with a simple solution that was used by growers, so I think that gave me the impetus to think outside the box and come up with alternate solutions.

“Of course, this means PREDICTA PT would also have to be one of my proudest achievements. Initially we had to take that technology and actually get it validated so we could then deliver it through agronomists to growers. Seeing our research and findings implemented makes me happy and proud.”

Image: Michael Rettke’s ultimate aim is to sustain the greatest environmental asset that powers Australia’s agricultural industry – our soils.

Michael says he feels honoured to have his work recognised, particularly given Bayer has the naming rights for this award through their partnership with AUSVEG, as Michael has worked closely with Bayer on a range of projects throughout his career.

“Bayer is a global company that is heavily involved in research, so it feels good to be recognised by, and have the support of, a company of that stature. Just being recognised in research alone is a very good thing. It’s very encouraging for myself and other researchers,” Michael explains. 

Awards like these recognise the work that places Australian science on a global stage and inspires future generations, so, with years of experience under his belt, Michael offered an encouraging word of advice to those commencing their careers in the horticultural industry.

“You need to have passion and perseverance, but I think more than anything else, you need to surround yourself with a good team and good people, because the world is way too complicated to try and do it by yourself,” Michael says.

Also Read: ADAMA Launches New Cereal Fungicide Maganic®

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