Strawberry Runner Plant Growing in Toolangi
by Joanne Priestley
In the 1950s, the yields from strawberry fruit crops in Victoria were low and declining. To a large extent this was due to repetitive vegetative propagation of plants infected with viruses. [Note 1] In addition, many of the available varieties were not the most suitable for Victorian growing conditions.[i] A delegation from the Silvan Strawberry Growers Association, led by grower Gordon Chapman, requested the Victorian Department of Agriculture to assist finding a source of high health, productive strawberry plants and to investigate the importation of new, improved varieties.[ii] In response, the Department of Agriculture initiated the Victorian Strawberry Runner Certification Scheme which would enable the production of high quality, certified strawberry plants (runners).
A few locations were considered, with Toolangi chosen because of its ideal geographical location, with natural isolation provided by State forests that formed a barrier against pests and diseases, as well as from fruit growing districts. Toolangi also had good annual rainfall, suitable mountain soils, a high altitude to deter aphid flights and low autumn/winter temperatures which are essential for good fruit bud initiation.[iii]
Numerous trials were conducted during the 1950s at the Toolangi Potato Research Station[iv] by Senior Field Officer Karl Kroon, from the Scoresby Research Station[v], and Senior Plant Pathologist Lionel Stubbs, from Burnley College.[vi] [Note 2] Also, at the Potato Research Station, Ralph Proctor and Bob Pockett, strawberry agronomists, used field plot work to pioneer a number of innovations for runner production and both became the first inspectors for the certification scheme. Fruit growers would come to field days at the Potato Research Station to evaluate the new varieties for the yield, appearance, shelf life and flavour of strawberry fruit produced by the new plants. The first field day of pathogen-tested stock in the late 1950s attracted about 400 people.[vii]
Toolangi farmers Gerry Chambers, Jack Ebbels and John Priestley were involved in the initial formal trialing of strawberry runner production, and in 1960 the Approved Strawberry Runner Growers’ Association was formed, with other local growers joining the scheme.[viii] The Association then became the Toolangi Certified Strawberry Runner Grower’s Co-operative Ltd (‘the Co-op’) in August 1979.[ix]
A public meeting was held in the early 1960s by the Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Toolangi Progress Association. The meeting explained to the residents the full implications of a proposed strawberry runner certification scheme.[x] Subsequently it was agreed that the district be proclaimed as a Strawberry Runner Isolation area under the Vegetation & Vine Diseases Act 1958. An area of approximately 15 square miles was proclaimed by the Victorian Government on 23 March 1963.[xi] In 1995 the Co-op, with community consultation, was instrumental in widening the parameters of the isolation area and developing ‘Plant Protection District’ legislation.[xii]
The Association (now Co-op) was established to enable the orderly marketing of certified runners around Australia. It is grower-owned and currently has 12 members. It is headed by a Managing Director and a Board of Directors, elected from the members. Amazingly the Co-op has only had two Managing Directors in 61 years – John Priestley, until his death in 1975, and George Weda, to the present day. A magnificent effort.
Toolangi Runner Growers have included the families of Anderson, Binz, Busacca, Chambers, Cosson, Ebbels, Hodge, McKay, McNulty, Monk, Perry, Priestley, Toscano, Van De Ven, Walker and Weda.
Initially the Co-op was a small enterprise with plants being dispatched from private sheds. As the Co-operative grew and production increased, the Co-op moved to the current site at 2039 Healesville-Kinglake Road, Toolangi in 1992.[xiii] A bigger office was needed to accommodate clerical staff to facilitate the millions of strawberry runners grown annually, as well as large cool rooms and a huge dispatch shed, as plants are now delivered via semi-trailers!
In the 1960s, all strawberry runner plants were dug by hand and then hand-shaken to remove dirt. By the early 1970s Bob Pockett and Tom Thomson (the engineer at the Potato Research Station) had devised a small, rotating wire-mesh barrel driven by a petrol motor, which was used to shake the dirt off the hand-dug plants.[xiv] Later, Jock and Roger Briggs from Dixon’s Creek developed a complete mechanical barrel harvester utilising tractor hydraulics which then eliminated the laborious hand-digging of the plants, as well as dirt removal. Initially, Jock was contracted to dig the runner plants for the growers, however, with the rapid expansion of the runner industry, it soon became necessary for all growers to have their own specialist harvesting equipment.[xv]
In the 1980s the introduction of Plant Variety Rights gave the Toolangi Strawberry Co-op the ability to negotiate license arrangements with overseas breeding programs. By 1990 the Co-op became the sole licensees in Australia for world renowned University of California strawberry varieties. The rapid success of these varieties resulted in them being the preferred varieties for the Australian Industry, presently accounting for in excess of 50 per cent of the total plantings in Australia.[xvi]
The Victorian Department of Agriculture managed the scheme until 1995 when it was handed over to the Victorian Strawberry Industry Certification Authority Inc (VSICA). VSICA is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, governed by a board of directors comprising two runner growers and two strawberry fruit growers and an independent chairman. VSICA is responsible for pathogen testing and production of nucleus and foundation stock, as well as inspections and certifications of the commercial runners grown in the field stock. Certification labels are only issued when all criteria are met by the runner growers.[xvii]
The establishment of the Strawberry Runner Certification scheme in Toolangi has contributed substantially to the local economy and provided valuable employment opportunities for the district. The benefits for the Australian strawberry fruit growers are significant as the high-quality certified plants grown by the Toolangi Co-op are the main driver for the success of the Australian strawberry fruit industry.
Notes: Before the introduction of the scheme, fruit growers selected runners from their current season’s crop as planting stock for the following season. The selected plants were frequently infected with diseases which then spread progressively over the subsequent seasons and resulted in reduced quality and yield.  In the early 1950s, Lionel Stubbs had identified many of the diseases affecting strawberry yields. He successfully eliminated virus disease from a number of Victorian varieties through heat treatment and had sufficient virus-free material from the USA and UK to begin multiplying plants at the Institute for Horticultural Development, Toolangi.
[ii] ‘Marathon Runners: The Story of Victorian Strawberry Runner Certification Scheme 1960-2010’, 2009, Victorian Strawberry Industry Certification Authority Inc
[iii] ‘Marathon Runners: The Story of Victorian Strawberry Runner Certification Scheme’
[iv] The Potato Research Station was later known as the Institute for Horticultural Development (IHD) or simply ‘the Spud Farm’
[v] The Research Station in Scoresby was later known as Institute for Horticultural Science, Knoxfield
[vi] Burnley College was later the VCAH or Plant Research Institute, now part of the University of Melbourne
[vii] ‘Marathon Runners: The Story of Victorian Strawberry Runner Certification Scheme’
[viii] ‘Potato Research Station Toolangi: The First 50 years 1945-1995’, 1995, L.J. Harmsworth & G.H. Mattingley
[ix] Incorporation Certificate, Toolangi Certified Runner Growers Co-operative
[x] Bob Pockett History Notes, October 1986
[xii] Joanne Priestley, Community Representative Plant Protection District Committee, Minutes of Meetings
[xiii] George Weda, Managing Director, Toolangi Certified Strawberry Runners Co-operative, interview 2021
[xiv] David Pockett, 2021
[xv] George Weda, interview 2021
[xvi] George Weda, interview 2021
[xvii] ‘The story of healthy strawberry runners’, 1995, Mr Mirko Milinkovic, Dr Scott Mattner and Dr Frank Greenhalgh