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Horticulture - Small crops

Horticulture areas where small crops are grown for food.



Cultivated Ecosystems

What ecosystem functions do small crops perform?


For assessment purposes, this ERC includes only the small crop area (e.g. pineapples). Schlerophyll forest can be seen in the background.

Table 1 below presents the relative magnitude small crop ecosystems perform different ecosystem functions, relative to other ecosystems in SEQ. Small crops are cultivated ecosystems, meaning they are directly managed by humans for specific purposes, usually for food products aimed at providing nutritious sources of energy or pharmacological resources. Knowledge on pharmacuetical benefits for other species is limited to humans. Unknowingly to us, natural materials grown as small crops can be used by organisms/species to maintain, restore or improve their health.

Biomass produced within small crop ecosystems provide raw materials, supporting habitats and food for many species (e.g. birds, reptiles, small mammals, insects and humans). Where some of these species may be important pollinators for sustaining this ecosystem, often these are not favourable  (e.g. herbivores, frugivores, omnivores) as they consume the end products of value to humans (e.g. food such as fruit and vegetables). The type of small crop grown will determine what species rely on this ecosystem for food. Monoculture nature of small crops notes, relative to other ecosystems the diversity of species is lower.

The vegetation in small crop ecosystems contribute to the function water regulation through evapotranspiration and distributing water (spatially and temporally)  through soils and aquifers. The type of soil underpinning the ecosystem plays a role in water regulation and waste treatment depending on it's permeability and therefore runoff rates and the potential to allow the recharging of aquifers. Small crop ecosystems also provide important waste treatment and assimilation by storing and recycle organic and inorganic nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous and reducing the transportation of excess nutrients through the maintenance of land cover.


Table 1:The relative magnitude (to other Ecosystem Reporting Categories) small crops perform each ecosystem function.

Ecosystem Function Category Ecosystem Function 0
Regulating Functions
Gas Regulation            
Climate Regulation            
Disturbance Regulation            
Water Regulation            
Soil Retention            
Nutrient Regulation            
Waste Treatment and Assimilation            
Biological Control            
Barrier Effect of Vegetation            
Supporting Functions
Supporting Habitats            
Soil Formation            
Provisioning Functions
Raw Materials            
Water Supply            
Genetic Resources            
Provision of Shade and Shelter            
Pharmacological Resources            
Cultural Functions
Landscape Opportunity            


What types of small crops are in SEQ?

Small crop ecosystems are areas of land where the dominant vegetation are usually fruit and/or vegetables predominantly grown for food. Small crop ecosystems come in a range of sizes. Large commercial farms exist moslty in the west and north of SEQ. Within urban environments, backyard vegetable gardens and local community gardens are emerging as an alternative small crop ecosystem to larger scale commercial farms.

The main crops grown in these ecosystems include potato, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, wombok, onions, spring-onions, shallots, garlic, sweetcorn, green beans, celery, pumpkin, rockmelon, tomatoes, capsicum, zucchini, mushrooms, ginger, asian vegetables, strawberries, pineapples etc. Most large scale commercial properties rely on irrigation to supply water to their cropping ecosystems (rather then being purely rainfed). Different levels of irrigation are required depending on species of crop grown and its suitability to the climate of the area.


What is the area and extent of small crops in SEQ?


Many areas which once grew strawberries (such as Redlands and Sunnybank) have been converted to housing developments.

Many small crops are dependent on irrigation, hence extended droughts can deplete aquifer reserves and irrigation water availability.

Heavy machinery and labour are sometimes required for planting, harvesting and generally maintaining small crop ecosystems.

Links to other publications and websites

Qld Govt. Fruit and Vegetables
Organic Federation of Australia
Permaculture Research Institute

Horticulture - small crop ecosystems cover 627 km2, 2.5% of SEQ. This map shows the majority of horticulture small cropping is conducted in the Lockyer and Fassifern Valleys and in small pockets along the coast of SEQ. Collectively the Lockyer Valley (about 12,000 ha of vegetable production) and Fassifern Valley (about 2000 ha of vegetable production) represent a major proportion of Australia’s vegetable production (in excess of 10%) and importantly fills the key winter season demand. Smaller horticulture small-crop ecosystems are found around Nambour, Glasshouse Mountains and Caboolture. Crop rotation is an important part of soil and disease management in a horticultural ecosystem and usually includes a legume or fodder crop. Variations in the area and type of small crop occurs from year to year, so the type of crops identified in this map will be dependant on the year of creation. 


What is the vulnerability of small crops and threats to this ecosystem in SEQ?

The major threats to this ecosystem are drought, floods, exotic pest incursions and soil fertility decline. The ecosystem is essentially totally dependent on irrigation hence extended droughts can deplete aquifer reserves and irrigation water availability. The ecosystem could be much better managed by the provision of affordable irrigation water to offset the depletion of aquifers during extreme drought.

Much of the production is centred on the alluvial valley floors in the Lockyer and Fassifern Valleys. Floods, though essential to recharge aquifers, can cause substantial crop loss depending on the time of year and this can impact on the viability of the industry and hence ecosystem. Exotic pest incursions are a constant threat to small crops and several major new pest incursions have been recorded in the past 10-15 years. In upland areas soil erosion and soil fertility decline are key threats.

The loss of good agricultural land and its gradual fragmentation through development (downsizing of economically viable areas or isolation of these smaller pockets of land which leads to potential conflicts between farming operations and neighbouring land use e.g. residential) is of particular concern in SEQ. Population pressures into the future will place further demand on this ecosystem. 

From a production perspective the resilience and robustness of the systems is variable within SEQ depending on the region and crop. However, common to all is the requirement for considerable inputs of resources including, irrigation water, fertiliser and energy. In the major production areas of the Lockyer and Fassifern Valleys limits to water supply during extreme drought (up to 2009) greatly impacted on production. In these regions the soils are relatively deep, naturally fertile for most nutrients and well structured which infers high resilience but in other parts of SEQ soils are more fragile and require a higher level of management.

A long-term focus on improving soil quality would improve the sustainability of the ecosystem and increase its productive capacity. Market limitations of over supply and low prices are a major constraint to the industry and can affect the capacity to implement improved farm management strategies.


How do we manage small crops in SEQ?

In SEQ there is no regional management plan for small crops but individually greater than 95% of farms operate using strict quality assurance guidelines that include components that ensure a high level of responsibility in managing the ecosystem. For example small crop growers maintain records for pesticide application and apply these in accordance with the manufacturers label including withholding periods and rates of application. Through the retail chain, products can be tracked back to the individual paddock where it was grown and detailed property maps are maintained.

There are a number of non-profit organisations at the regional, state and national level relevant to managing small crop ecosystems in the SEQ region. At the regional level, SEQ Catchments has a well established property management planning team that assists landholders in the design and implementation of sustainable land practices. At the State level, Growcom is the peak representative body for the horticulture industry providing a range of relevant services to help members, clients and partners achieve greater success. Nationally, AusVeg (the industry peak body) has developed the EnviroVeg program containing guidelines and information for small crop growers on how to manage business in an environmentally responsible manner, providing a visible way to demonstrate improved stewardship within the industry. The Organic Federtion of Australia is the peak body for the organic horticulture industry. The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia also provides information on the management of small crop ecosystems and offers courses on permaculture.

At the state and national level a number of government agencies that not only provide the regulatory context from which small crop ecosystems are to operate, but provide research and materials to support small crop growers in managing their business. For example, the Queensland Government's Department of Natural Resources and Mines and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry provide support to assist Queensland's food industries to increase productivity, improve sustainability, grow markets and adapt to change (e.g. through the Property Management Systems Initiative). The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry are responsible for the development and implement of policies and programs that ensure Australia's agricultural industries remain competitive, profitable and sustainable. A few of the specific laws/regulations/policies relating to the management of small crop ecosystems include: State Planning Policy for the Protection of Good Quality Agricultural Land; Environmental Protection Act 1994; Environmental Protection (Water) Policy 2009; Water Act 2000; Soil Conservation Act 1986; Rural Futures Strategy.