SA seed laboratory commemorates centenary

Waite lab underpins success of SA small seeds industry


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Seed Services Australia celebrated 100 years testing seed for SA farmers with a lunch and laboratory tour at its Waite facility on Friday last week.

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QUALITY CONTROL: Seed Services Australia staff Aaron Keane, Chammi Wijayagunawardana and Carmen Morris conduct a purity test on faba beans.

QUALITY CONTROL: Seed Services Australia staff Aaron Keane, Chammi Wijayagunawardana and Carmen Morris conduct a purity test on faba beans.

Seed Services Australia – the PIRSA-run laboratory – has stood the test of time.

The Waite-based facility is celebrating 100 years testing seed for SA farmers and enabling locally-grown seed to be exported to the world with a high quality stamp.

The quarantine lab has also safeguarded the industry from importing many weeds.

It has been a major driver in the growth of the state’s seed industry, which is the nation’s largest, producing about 12,000 tonnes or 70 per cent of Australia’s temperate certified pasture and forage seed annually.

This is worth about $210 million to the SA economy.

More than 10,000 seed samples are tested annually at the International Seed Testing Association-accredited and quarantine approved lab.

SSA also inspects more than 35,000 hectares of seed crops from southern and eastern Australia, as part of its national seed certification and SureSeed programs.

The SA Department of Agriculture began seed testing in 1917, largely for quarantine purposes, but also offered a free service for farmers wanting to test cereal seed. Testing volumes gradually grew until the 1950s to 1970s when certified annual medic, subterranean clover and lucerne seed production really took off.

Seed growers began exporting seed to North Africa and the Middle East but wanted a higher level of accreditation to access more markets. It pushed the federal government to become a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development seed schemes and from 1972, the SA lab began issuing OECD certificates.

SSA manager Peter Smith attributes the strong position of SA’s small seed industry to several factors – the natural resources including underground water for irrigated crops, innovative farmers but also state government support for research and extension in the 1950s-70s.

BUSINESS EXPANSION: Seed Services Australia supervisor Aaron Keane and manager Peter Smith look over some germination tests.

BUSINESS EXPANSION: Seed Services Australia supervisor Aaron Keane and manager Peter Smith look over some germination tests.

“I’m sure each farmer wanted to keep some secrets, but there was good sharing of seed production technology and the department did a lot of important extension work and had seed research officers at Struan and Northfield,” he said.

Also beneficial was the state government focusing on extension rather than a “big stick” regulatory approach.

“Almost on my first day I remember I was told your role is to help seed growers understand the rules and assist them to do everything to get those crops to meet standards,” Mr Smith said.

The transition from public seed varieties to those licensed by plant breeders has been the biggest change for the seed industry and Seed Services Australia in the past 40 years.

“Back in the early 1990s, the phone was constantly ringing with 400 or 500 growers wanting to know their results on their Hunter River lucerne or Clare subclover seed lines, but now we are dealing with four or five national seed companies and many different varieties,” Mr Smith said. 

In 2016-17, SSA certified 154 varieties from 30 different species of pasture and field crop seed.

Lucerne was the largest, with 46 plant breeder’s rights cultivars and five public varieties certified; followed by small-seeded clovers, Italian ryegrass and vetch.

Mr Smith, who joined the SA Department of Agriculture as a seed certification officer in 1978, said the process of growing certified seed from basic seed had changed very little.

But since 2001, growers and seed companies have been able to follow the progress of their samples electronically by logging on to Seeds Online to view their results.

Certificates are also issued by email, speeding up the process.

Each sample – representing up to 10 tonnes for pasture seeds and 30t for larger seeded species of cleaned seed – is sent in by the seed processors to be checked for weed seeds and inert matter and given a germination test.

Mr Smith said seed testing volumes had almost doubled in the past 20 years, especially due to the growth of the lucerne seed industry and an ever-expanding interstate client base.

SSA manager Peter Smith foresees a bright future for the lab and SA seed industry.

“Being government-run, we are seen as an independent seed laboratory that is important to many export destinations,” he said. 

“Given the soils and irrigation water quality of the Upper South East, I foresee lucerne seed remaining the number one seed crop for many decades to come.”

For the past two seasons, SSA has also been contracted by the Australian Pastures Genebank, based at the Waite Campus, to test 4000 samples of pasture germplasm seed a year.

This year, it is also testing germplasm seed from the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham, Vic.

HISTORY OF SEED SERVICES AUSTRALIA

1917: Seed testing established in horticulture branch of SA Department of Agriculture, mainly for quarantine.

1936: Seed certification set up in Department of Agriculture’s agronomy department – 70 samples tested in first year.

1938: The Agricultural Seeds Act and regulations were proclaimed.

1950-70s: Boom period for certified annual medic and subterranean clover seed production.

1972: Laboratory authorised to issue OECD and ISTA (internationally recognised) certificates, widening export markets.

1977: Seed Services Australia established, bringing testing, certification and research into one entity.

1988: SSA moves from CBD to Northfield and user pay fees introduced.

1994: SSA moves to the Plant Research Centre at Waite Campus.

2003: SSA joins Rural Solutions SA.

2012: SSA partners with Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment to provide OECD certificates to Tas growers.

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