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The Mallee Regional Innovation Centre is drawing on this expertise to tackle some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing Victoria’s north west, and beyond.
Victoria’s Mallee region is one of the country’s most productive, enjoying a Mediterranean climate that produces much of Victoria’s fruit, vegetables nuts and grains.
But the climate isn’t the only reason for the region’s thriving horticulture industry. Its people also have a long and proud history of innovating, with locally developed technologies, like the industrial mechanical grape harvester, now used on farms around the world.
Capitalising on this natural and human potential, the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) was launched in 2019.A joint partnership between the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and SuniTAFE, the Centre unites local industry and community members with university researchers.
Together, the partners use world-leading research to solve problems in a way that is locally relevant and fit-for-purpose.The Mildura-based Centre operates across Victoria’s north-west and already has a number of ambitious projects underway, in areas as diverse as water resource management, hydrogen and dried vine fruit pruning.
For Chief Executive Rebecca Wells, who grew up on a ‘block’ (a vineyard) where her family produced wine grapes and dried vine fruits, the projects are united by an approach that values local experience.
“Involving end users in the research and development process from the start is a really important part of how we go about business,” she says.
“Having had my fair share of ‘block work’, from driving a tractor to spreading grapes on a rack, I know that innovations have to work in context, not just on paper.”
In a region bursting with so much potential, part of Ms Wells and her team’s early challenge was working out where to focus first. While the Centre’s work is guided by its four priority areas (horticulture, water, energy and the environment), there were still plenty of opportunities at their fingertips.
“Involving end users in the research and development process from the start is a really important part of how we go about business.
“When we first opened our doors there were so many potential projects it was almost overwhelming,” says Ms Wells, “we had to take a step back and work out some key projects as a starting point.”
Nearly two years later, the Centre has turned that diversity into a strength. It has become an enabler, bringing all the players together to work on some of the region’s biggest challenges and opportunities.
Like managing water in the face of climate change.
Threats to water
The Centre is leading one of the five proposed regional hubs as part of the ONE Basin Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) bid. If successful, the hubs will coordinate research and development to address climate, water and environmental challenges and threats to the Murray-Darling Basin.
“Having industry-led, place-based research and projects both here in the region and connecting across regions could create real and lasting impact,” says Ms Wells.“We’ve known for a while that there is less water available in the system.
The CRC presents an opportunity to bring all sorts of partners to the table to produce solutions that work for as many people as possible, on the largest possible scale.
The proposed CRC will position Australia as a world leader in adapting agriculture to meet the challenges of climate change and water, in the context of important factors like energy and technologies.
The key lies in connecting local experts, industry partners, government and researchers across the five proposed hubs.
Thanks to MRIC, the Mallee Hub will have access to University of Melbourne experts like Professor Michael Stewardson, who has been monitoring the Basin’s environmental water flows since 2014, and Dr Avril Horne, whose expertise includes climate change impacts in water resource systems and environmental water management.
The Centre has also recently joined a bid as a ‘Node’ to establish a Victorian Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub.
The approach is similar: enhance existing local activity by bringing together experts from research, industry and community.
“Bringing partners from research, government, industry and community together is very rewarding,” says Ms Wells. “The collective develops its own ecosystem through which they can work together, directly or in parallel to the main activity.”
Ms Wells points to a dried vine pruning project that brought together the peak industry body, researchers and growers. Growers’ feedback and trialling of their own ideas led to the researchers changing direction, from developing a solution that used a platform to one that could be mounted on the front of a tractor instead.
“The researchers adapted and changed with the information they’d been given, and they’re going to end up with something that is more fit-for-purpose as a result,” she says.
The Centre is also working to establish new industries in the region, with hydrogen leading the charge.
“We’re really excited about what hydrogen technology could mean for our region,” says Ms Wells, noting that MRIC will lead one of the 13 recently announced NERA (National Energy Resource Australia) regional hydrogen technology clusters.
“We have all the ideal elements to help build Australia’s hydrogen energy industry, particularly with solar renewables already established here to power its production.
“There is already a lot of activity and interest in hydrogen locally, so we’re looking forward to building on that with interested partners.”
First published on 21 October 2021.
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