SMILES ALL ROUND: Christie Centre Executive Officer, Florence Davidson, Labor candidate for Mildura, Dr Tony Alessi, Member for Northern Victoria Mark Gepp, SuniTAFE chair, Kay Martin, and SuniTAFE CEO, Geoff Dea, at Tuesday’s funding announcement. 

By JOHN DOOLEY

A FUNDING package in excess of $3.5million for SuniTAFE, announced by Member for Northern Victoria Mark Gepp this week, will provide cutting-edge training options for students, and see the establishment of a ‘Smart Farm’ at the institute’s Cardross property.

A major component of the package is a $2.2million boost from the Regional and Specialist Training Fund, which will facilitate eight key courses to respond to skills needs in the region.

Mr Gepp said the funding will allow SuniTAFE to provide high quality course materials, facilities and training for students.

“It will ensure that almost 200 students can undertake courses that are relevant and important to this community in areas such as health administration, production nursery, disability and individual support, electrotechnology, auto electrical, food processing and production horticulture,” he said.

“In addition to that funding component, there is another $1.28million investment in a project to establish a Smart Farm at SuniTAFE, and I am particularly thrilled that the strong advocacy from SuniTAFE’s CEO, Geoff Dea, and his team has paid off, and this fantastic initiative will go ahead.

“The announcement is made under the Workforce Training and Innovation Fund, and will give students training in horticulture, irrigation, rural operations and a training farm where they can use digital farming technology to develop skills for current and future farming roles.”

Mr Gepp said that the ”old days of farming” are gone, with his Government understanding that it’s all about technology, and ensuring that the relevant courses and support to industry and its participants are provided to enable them to maximise the benefits of technology, boost productivity and increase the economic output of the region’s farming community.

“Digital farming means that you can control farm machinery remotely, utilising GPS link controls for planting and harvesting and using sensors and 3D imaging to map conditions,” he said. “Technology is transforming the way we work in every industry and agriculture is at the forefront of those advances.”

The Smart farm will be developed in partnership with SuniTAFE and Mildura Regional Development Corporation to help students gain advanced technological skills, and learn project planning and entrepreneurial skills. 

Mr Gepp said the remaining $600,000 being provided for the Skills First Reconnect Program at SuniTAFE aims to further ensure that locals have the opportunity to obtain the skills they need.

“This funding will enable up to 80 students in the Gannawarra, Mildura and Swan Hill municipalities to access services to reconnect with training and prepare for work,” he said.

“These are people who may have some learning difficulties, they may be long-term unemployed and so importantly this money will ensure that they get the support and the focus they need to be the best that they can possibly be. 

“Reconnect provides a range of services to help those people to identify the right course for them and to remain on track.”

Mildura Regional Development Corporation CEO, Daryl Buckingham, who attended the announcement, said it was a very exciting day, and showed what can happen when there is a vision, and when people form a partnership to work together for a common cause.

“The Smart Farm has become a lightning-rod which has stimulated a lot of interest from other companies not just in Australia, but overseas,” he said.

“I have been in discussion with the Government of New Zealand, and recently we attracted a start-up company that works in the precision hort space called Crop Logic who specialise in satellite and sensor technology, and as a result, we now have another six New Zealand companies wanting to come here and set up on the Smart Farm, which would give us access to technology that no-one else in Australia has access to, and they are willing to be part of the education program training people in that emerging technology that is in demand all around the world.

“A project to come to life from this is a virtual reality – augmented reality, training program that we are running in partnership with OLAM, and that’s rolling out as we speak, and will give us the opportunity to find solutions for industry training needs that can’t be found in the classroom.”

Mr Dea said that the college has plans to redevelop the infrastructure at the Cardross farm in recognition that technology is key part of agriculture today. 

“The funding we received today will enable us to establish an ‘internet of things’ across the top of our farm, and we hope that once that is installed, we will be able to train students in coding and the use of technology in agriculture,” he said.

“The announcements today hit the key target areas. We have had the opportunity to work with the department over the last six months, and you heard Mark refer to the advocacy that we have been undertaking, and clearly they have been listening which is fantastic, and we are now in a position to deliver some critically important courses.”