Imagine a place where robots gather food as well as vital production data, where remote-control drones fly overhead, in-ground sensors link to sophisticated computer programs and roaming self-drive vehicles carry out automated tasks.
What might sound like plans for a future colony on Mars is actually a modern farm, and apart from the flying drones, which are still in development, such leading-edge agricultural technology is part of everyday life for students at Dookie Campus.
An agricultural research centre has existed at Dookie since 1877, but its association with the University of Melbourne began in 1910, when Bachelor of Agricultural Science students spent a year there as part of their degree studies.
It’s a place where early agronomists grappled with the laws of hybridisation and World War I soldier settlers learned to eke out a living on the land. Now it’s a 2400-hectare “living laboratory” where students prepare to meet the challenges and rich career opportunities of a world threatened by climate change and food scarcity.
Dookie – 220 kilometres north of Melbourne in the Goulburn Valley – no longer trains farmers. It produces agricultural scientists, consultants and resource managers with specialised skills and amazing technology at their fingertips, and the current crop of first year students have a strong sense of mission.
One first-year student resident at Dookie, Aisha Ozaksoy, sums it up this way: “It’s definitely exciting. When you say agricultural science, people think it’s only to do with farming, just checking out the soil or something, but it’s a lot more than that.
“Agriculture is such a broad sector you can almost go into anything. We’re studying climate change and impacts, learning more about the need for food security, and we want to contribute to that.There will be more and more work as the years go on.”
Aisha is one of a growing number of female students studying at Dookie who have contributed to a four-fold increase in enrolments in the program over the past two years. The proportion of female students has now reached 60 per cent, a remarkable change in a campus that, until 1972, had only male students.
Having served as a catalyst for agricultural innovation for almost 130 years, Dookie Campus reached another historic milestone last month when it became part of the University’s new Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. The newly named faculty combines Dookie’s on-farm animal and plant production activities with the Faculty of Veterinary Science, a move that unites their expertise and cements the University’s national prominence in animal health and agriculture.
“All the activities we have been involved in will continue, but they will merge into the new faculty and students won’t be affected,” says Dookie Campus Director Ros Gall (BCom 1985).
“It’s a positive thing, because there are a lot of synergies between veterinary science and what we do here. Dookie has a lot to offer vet students in terms of research opportunities as well as training in animal handling.”