PUTTING KNOWLEDGE INTO PRACTICE: Dr Madaline Healey with agroforestry farmers from Laos.
PUTTING KNOWLEDGE INTO PRACTICE: Dr Madaline Healey with agroforestry farmers from Laos. Contributed

Researcher helps South-East Asian farmers expand horizons

A RESEARCHER from the University of the Sunshine Coast is putting her knowledge into practical use for farmers in Laos and Cambodia.

Dr Madaline Healey has been part of a research group helping to expand the farmers' crops and boost their food and financial security.

The group has been running workshops and speaking with farmers about how they might like to diversify what they grow, bearing in mind that many of them subsist entirely on what they grow.

"Laos is on the Least Developed Country list and one of the biggest issues isn't about food, it's about the diversity of food that they are eating," said Dr Healey, who specialises in forestry and horticulture research in South-East Asia.

The farmers are mostly smallholders who are self-subsistent and who seek to grow a mix of trees, fruits, vegetables and livestock - a mix of disciplines known as "agroforestry".

"A lot of people in rural areas will subsist on rice for months at a time and that's where malnutrition comes in," she said.

"Diversification is also important because if a swarm of locusts comes in and eats all your vegetables, if you still have rice or chicken to eat and you still have another source of food or income.

"Farming is very much a risky game."

The workshops are funded by an Association of South-East Asian Nations Council grant. The team returns this month for a final round of workshops in the north of Laos.

"Once we know what the farmers want to grow, we will then put forward another proposal so we can return to help them implement new ideas while assessing everything from how easy it is to grow, to the logistics of getting it to market," Dr Healey said.

The entomologist, who has a passion for sustainable agriculture, has worked in Laos since 2013 and speaks the language proficiently, deferring to colleagues only when the discussion gets technical.

"It's a beautiful country and it's amazing the friendships that come out of it because you've built this really great rapport with each other," she said.

She is using the opportunity to collect a diverse range of insects for her studies, while using her expertise to further support farmers to make informed decisions about pest control.