Tom relishes opportunity to use science to help banana industry flourish

By Lea Coghlan

Early this year, Tom Flanagan took up a new role as industry development officer with the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Australian Bananas Magazine spoke to Tom about the journey the has taken to arrive in the banana industry.

Tom Flanagan’s arrival in agriculture was anything but conventional.

There was no childhood raised on a farm – he grew up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane – nor did he choose to study agriculture on finishingsecondary school, instead completing a four-year psychology degree.

But an 18-month sojourn to South America aligned the new industry development officer at the NSW Department of Primary Industries with a career in agriculture.

“I went to South America for 18 months predominantly volunteering and one of the positions was working on a small-scale mixed cropping farm in Ecuador,” Mr Flanagan said.

“At that point I had a keen interest in working with plants but the farm gave me experience and insight working with plants in an agricultural setting.

“The thing that excited me about agriculture was that it provided a perfect combination of practical work on the land, with science that spans a broad range of disciplines and engagement with the local community.

“My experience on the farm in Ecuador gave me the opportunity to experience this firsthand.”

A choice

Several years ago, Mr Flanagan was at a crossroads in his career – continue in land rehabilitation or pursue a career in agriculture.

Lucky for the Australian banana industry, the choice was easy for the self-proclaimed science enthusiast who was eager to sink his teeth into a challenge.

“Agriculture is booming, particularly within the context of a global population,” Mr Flanagan said.

“With that comes challenges – some are already being felt, and others are on their way.

“Due to the global challenges that face our society and agricultural industries, the ability to increase productivity whilst limiting our environmental impact is going to become increasingly important.

“Working in agriculture allows me to combine my interests of working on the land, science and community whilst making a contribution to addressing the challenges that face agriculture, the environment and society, not only locally but globally.”

Science is a passion

After completing a degree in plant ecology at the University of Queensland, Mr Flanagan worked on conservation projects, predominantly large-scale plantings and weed and invasive plant eradication programs. But he missed doing research.

“I have an incredible passion for science,” he said.

“I love designing and running experiments and trials to answer difficult questions.

“As I am finding out, bananas are quite a challenging crop, which makes it more interesting.

“I believe I have a strong science background, training and knowledge that provide a great foundation for me to undertake exciting research on bananas.”

Connecting with people – in the case of his job, predominantly banana growers – has also got Mr Flanagan excited.

“I love engaging with the community and, in particular, with growers,” he said.

“The opportunity to engage in scientific research and then be able to communicate the results
to growers and help them with the process of adoption, if that’s what they wish to do, is a match made in heaven for me.”

A new outlook

Mr Flanagan joins the NSW DPI fresh from a position as a research agronomist with a private company based in Narrabri, where he conducted agronomic trials across a range of winter and summer grains and pulses.

He admits to riding a huge learning curve in the months since starting his new role, but with that comes an opportunity to cast a fresh set of eyes over issues and challenges.

“My first impression is that there is a strong and proud grower community in this region,” Mr Flanagan said.

“The research and extension officers are incredibly passionate about their roles and the collaborative relationship between NSW, Queensland and Western Australia will hopefully foster a bright and optimistic future for the banana industry.

“There is a lot of research to be done and lots of challenges, but if we can all come together as a community, we will be able to meet those challenges and help the industry prosper.”

Getting to know the region

Mr Flanagan has spent the months since his arrival getting to know growers in the region, meeting his research and extension officer counterparts in Far North Queensland and wrapping up projects funded under Hort Innovation’s Sub-Tropical Banana Development and Extension Program, a three-year project which concludes at the end of April.

He has also started collaborating with his Queensland colleagues on future research priorities.

Mr Flanagan said Panama TR4 remained one of the biggest challenges for the industry and he was impressed with the biosecurity measures put in place.

“The job that has been achieved to limit the spread to this degree by the response in Queensland appears to be unrivalled anywhere in the world,” he said.

“It’s a looming challenge, not just for Far North Queensland but for the whole industry.”

He is also looking forward to what may come of current screening trials for Panama race 1, which affects lady finger bananas.

“These variety trials are a great way of screening new and emerging varieties to guide alternative options for growers and build resilience in the industry.”