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Research and Extension Award – Marcel Veens

Industry Best Practice

The research and Extension award is given to a researcher who has a track record of research or extension work that has advanced the industry offering long-term industry benefits.

Marcel Veens, 2020 Research and Extension Award recipient. Photo: Liz Homer Photography.

If you had to coin a term for being in constant motion, to ‘Marcel’ would surely fit the bill.

So energetic and hard-working is this year’s Research and Extension Award recipient that you might find him providing orchard advice to a grower in the Huon Valley one day, discussing pest management in the south west Western Australia, Batlow or Orange the next and before you could blink he’d be up a ladder dispensing with an unwanted branch or spur as he demonstrates pruning techniques to an attentive crowd in the Goulburn Valley, Adelaide Hills or Stanthorpe.

Wherever he is, Marcel Veens’ deep knowledge, experience and passion for the industry commands immense respect and he is sought out by growers, agronomists and researchers throughout the sector for his expertise, his independence and his understanding of local conditions. “Marcel says,” .. is a byword for authoritative information.

“He’s trusted,” sums up one of several award selection committee members to nominate Marcel on behalf of growers. “He’s not shy, but that’s what growers value. He says what he thinks. They might not always agree but it challenges their thinking.”

“His impact on Australia’s apple industry cannot be overstated,” says another.

Trusted, and also an engaging and entertaining presenter.  Marcel keeps up to date with international trends and has a rare skill for translating something seen elsewhere into a local context.

Born in the Netherlands into a family of third-generation fruit growers – eight of his nine brothers are fruit growers – Marcel has been on the move since finishing horticultural studies. “I come from a farm, we were hippies,” he says. “We had no money, but plenty of time. I started travelling, I worked in Thailand, France, I’ve been to Turkey and to Albania where they have apples and cherries, and to Azerbaijan. I still have lots of connections in Europe and I travel there, even on holiday. I’ve studied apple and pear growing around the world and I’ve never stopped travelling.”

Fortunately, José, Marcel’s wife, business partner, ‘and support through all these years’ shares the love of travel and —from an apple-growing family also — of apples.

Marcel and José took to Australia and moved here 30 years ago. Marcel worked initially as general manager for south east Queensland-based apple, pear, stonefruit and lychee producer Ch. Füglister before setting up as horticultural consultant in 2005.

His knowledge was quickly recognised by industry and he was invited to speak at field days and joined the boards of both the Australian Fresh Fruit Co (AFFCo) and the Australian Pome Fruit Improvement Group (APFIP).

The Millennium Drought was the catalyst to resign and put knowledge built up over the years and his European networks – he’s still a member of the Dutch Fruitgrowers’ Association – to work for Australian growers as a consultant.

“There’s a lot of coming and going,” he concedes. “I go everywhere and I’m away 60 per cent of the time, but it is really interesting, and every district is different. The best part of consulting for me is the people. You learn as much from the growers as they learn from me. We have some arguments in the orchard, but that’s some fun and I don’t mind that. It’s the interaction I like.”

Travelling as he does, Marcel has seen a lot of orchard systems but says the multi leader cordon is the one he sees the most promise in.

“I like a slender spindle and a bibaum (twin leader),” he says. “You have a much simpler training system and the trees can do what they want to do. The problem is the higher capital investment. The cordon system (multi leader) is nothing new – we did it in pears for 30 years – it is only now we are doing it in apples. For me it is the cordon system.

“The future will be in high density systems – probably more canopies, more capital investment and labour saving. Yield will come if we have the density and we are not overcropping. If you have 8000 leaders/ha and have 10kg a leader and you put your apples on, you have 80t/ha. It’s not hard to get the yield but it does take capital investment. That’s where we are going.”

Regardless of system, Marcel sees both climate change and the complexities around club varieties and which to choose as the key challenges facing growers.

“It is absolutely necessary in Australia to net to protect crops, you have to invest more,” he said. “The club varieties are a complex issue, knowing which one to invest in and will it suit your region. It’s an opportunity and a worry. Are there enough returns? You have to make a living, it’s not a hobby.”

COVID-19 has briefly curtailed Marcel and he is uncharacteristically ‘at home’ at Pomona, north of Brisbane. The enforced inaction chafes a little but staying put has its charms. “I live on a property in one of the most beautiful areas in Australia,” he said.

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