Horticulture

Shepparton’s Ranmali Kariyawasam loves agriculture - and wants you to love it too

By Madi Chwasta

Shepparton's Ranmali Kariyawasam had never set foot on a farm — but somehow knew working on one was exactly what she wanted to do.

It was a case of love at first sight — and that was just from looking at a picture of a verdant New Zealand farm, its grassy fields stretching into the distance, while she was working as a lab researcher in Melbourne.

“I thought, what would it be like?" she said.

“I started thinking about how it would be, working on one; the farms were probably so pretty.”

Which left her facing a bit of a dilemma — should she walk out of the lab and find a job working on-farm?

It was a decision not to be taken lightly, because if she left her lab work there would be little chance of returning to it.

But despite the risks Ms Kariyawasam settled on giving it a go, and the Sri Lankan-born scientist Googled farms across Australia and discovered a food production region called the Goulburn Valley.

With a Masters degree up her sleeve, Ms Kariyawasam started cold-calling orchards with her rather simple but direct pitch: “Do you want someone?”

Remarkably it worked; and in April 2018 she was in her car and headed bush, to Geoffrey Thompson Orchards at Zeerust.

It was picking season, and the trees were groaning under their loads of ripe apples as hundreds of people from Germany, France, Malaysia — all around the world — worked at getting the fruit from the trees.

She wasn’t prepared for it, for any of it. Even worse, she wasn’t even dressed for it — Ms Kariyawasam was the only one there in shiny boots and shiny lipstick.

“The first day I came what I thought was properly dressed, and I’m like, ‘OK, so there’s dust everywhere’,” she said.

“The other workers laughed about it later on. They never thought I would stay.”

But two years down that dusty (or muddy, depending on the season) track and Ms Kariyawasam is still living the dream, having found not just her place on the farm, but her passion.

While Ms Kariyawasam works across various management and science-based roles, she’s primarily an entomologist (the farmers who once pitied her now affectionately call her the ‘bug lady’).

It’s cutting-edge work.

She oversees an agricultural innovation called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, being touted as a holistic solution to managing chemical-resistant pests without suffocating the land in clouds of poisonous pesticides.

“We are trying to minimise the harmful bugs with the help of good ones,” Ms Kariyawasam said.

“We really cross our fingers and wait for nature to do the job for us — and last season it worked.

“Agriculture is changing; we’ve really reduced the use of most of the chemicals that we use in the past few years.”

She says it’s work which requires “guts” and Ms Kariyawasam has no shortage of that.

Settled in Shepparton: Ranmali Kariyawasam works at Geoffrey Thompson Orchards in Zeerust, and wants others to consider a job in agriculture too. 

In recent years she has made major life changes without so much as batting an eyelid; starting in 2015 she relocated from a small coastal Sri Lankan town to metro Melbourne to do her Masters of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics at La Trobe University — an option not available in her home country.

While Ms Kariyawasam was more than comfortable with her English, she struggled with the culture shock.

“The transition period was hard because everything is different — different language, different people, different climate and different money,” she said.

“It took me three months to understand the (bank) notes.”

Moving to Shepparton took no adjustment. Ms Kariyawasam said it has the same quaint feeling as her Sri Lankan hometown Galle (home to 90,000 people, whereas Shepparton has a population of 60,000).

Ms Kariyawasam's husband Darshaka has accompanied her along the way; he has not only travelled thousands of kilometres across the globe with her, but now also works at the same orchard.

They've both fitted right in, particularly with the local Sri Lankan community (Ms Kariyawasam has just been appointed treasurer of the Sri Lankan Association of Goulburn Valley).

“Shepparton is totally different to Melbourne,” she said.

“People don’t feel like strangers; I know who my neighbour is and I talk to them.”

But she’s by no means complacent. She’s solution-oriented and there are some things which keep her up at night, including rising temperatures and lack of water.

“Sri Lanka’s farm problems can be solved with money, but Australia’s can’t,” she sighed with resignation.

“Some things can’t be controlled — the temperature goes up every year and it’s getting harsher.”

There’s also a skills shortage in farms, but Ms Kariyawasam thinks that’s something within her control.

Her mission is to get young people, especially educated migrants, interested in agriculture, and has featured in Goulburn Murray Local Learning & Employment Network's (GMLLEN) videos to get the message out there.

“We have the money, we have the jobs, but we don’t have people,” she said.

“When people think of the regions, it’s not like we’re in the jungle.”

Ms Kariyawasam's message is for young people to ``give it a chance” and to ``think outside of the box” as there would always be lots of jobs available across different education levels for good pay.

“Primary production will never go away,” Ms Kariyawasam said.

“You can live without computers, but you have to eat.”

Completely settled in Shepparton, Ms Kariyawasam now has ambitions to one day become an agronomist and advise farmers across the region.

But in the meantime, she’s enjoying working with some pretty good bosses.

“I’m dealing with the trees, and they don’t complain about me,” she said with a giggle.

“They don’t tell me off for coming to work late.”