Michelle Portelli: This year’s ultimate Plant Health Hero!

By Gabrielle Stannus

Arriving to her new position as Event Coordinator for the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH2020) one day before its launch, Michelle Portelli was prepared for a busy year. What has COVID-19 meant for her IYPH2020 plans?

Michelle Portelli is an experienced event manager and no stranger to hard work. Her last role involved coordinating events and seminars across two countries for the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. Engaged in February 2020 by the Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative to coordinate IYPH 2020 celebrations in Australia, Michelle quickly settled into work at Hort Innovation’s Melbourne office. On her cards were a series of events, including conferences and agricultural shows. However, physical distancing restrictions put in place to control the COVID-19 outbreak has meant that Michelle has had to rapidly change those plans.

Going online with everyday Plant Health Heroes
“While we're under self-isolation, we've turned to social media. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter account as well as our website. What we're doing is highlighting everyday Plant Health Heroes,” says Michelle, “We've had Craig Elliott (Coordinator National Xylella Preparedness Program). Then we had Shane Templeton from Templeton farms. He's a ginger grower and a real biosecurity champion.”

Michelle wants to use these online platforms to disseminate research by showcasing success stories of growers with their industry peers. She is currently planning a series of online events to do that, as well as additional events targeting non-industry folk. “We would like to put on a live webinar where we have a plant expert and people can join in, ask questions and get answers to questions concerning their plant’s health,” says Michelle. She is keen to involve growers in this exercise.

Hosting a cook-off!
Michelle is also appealing to people’s love for good food to raise the profile of biosecurity and plant health in this country. Michelle plans to hold a weekly online interactive cook-off in which a plant-based chef profiles different produce, whilst its grower is on-hand to educate the audience about how it gets onto their plate.

Engaging young people
Michelle sees the IYPH2020 as providing an opportunity to excite youngsters about plant science and potentially interest them in a horticultural career. Michelle is currently working with Questacon in Canberra to put on an exhibition targeting upper primary school-aged children, focussing on the fruit and vegetables they love to eat. She is also working to profile winners of the Hermitage Schools Plant Science Competition, an annual competition involving primary and secondary school children.

Leaving a therapeutic landscape legacy
Michelle is hopeful that COVID-19 restrictions will ease in the second half of the year, allowing her to mark the IYPH2020 with a long-term physical legacy. Michelle would like to involve firefighters in the replanting of school gardens damaged by this year’s deadly bushfires. “Their role is to help and to save,” says Michelle of the ‘firies’, “And with these bushfires, they lost a lot. They lost people, they lost homes, they lost properties, and it's really impacted them.”

Michelle would also like to build a community garden to unite one of the fire-affected communities. “This would help with that community’s healing,” says Michelle, acknowledging that gardening can heal the mind, body and soul. This project has already attracted the attention of the Stephanie Alexander Foundation and various greenlife industry members. Other projects include a therapeutic garden for children and a tree planting ceremony at the National Arboretum.

Encouraging you to get involved
“We need to get everybody involved, anybody that's got anything to do with plant health, biosecurity or plants,” says Michelle. “We need to build a link between the consumer and the grower. I think that the consumers would have a greater appreciation for what they're buying if they knew a little bit of background as to the person that's grown it, where it was grown, how long it takes to grow that seedling, and how long it takes to get it out to market. You know, this is a real person that's tended this plant, that's potted this plant, and they're entrusting you to take it home.” Michelle suggests working with Instagram plant influencers to help tell this story.

Finally, Michelle has these suggestions for growers and retailers wanting to celebrate IYPH 2020:

  1. Get involved in the BioSecure HACCP program to ensure that the product you put out to market is healthy
  2. Promote the IYPH2020 with a display in your premises. There are a range of resources available to help you do this, including posters, banners, reusable bags and pins
  3. Share your plant health stories on Twitter and Facebook using these hashtags: #PlantHealth, #IYPH2020 and #Biosecurity
  4. Share any events, research, apps, ‘how to’ guides or other relevant biosecurity and plant health material with industry professionals and consumers on the IYPH2020 website
Interested? Contact Michelle Portelli on Michelle.Portelli@horticulture.com.au for more information.