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Primary ITO: Knowledge to grow

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Skills Keep Horticulture Booming

16 October 2017

There’s an old maxim that says ‘it’s easier to take the lead than it is to hold on to it’, which might be applicable to the current boom that New Zealand horticulture is enjoying – we’re on roll, but how do we stay there? 

How to maintain momentum is a relevant question when you consider the well-known challenges confronting the local industry, including overseas competition, long distances from markets, diseases and pests like the Tomato-potato psyllid (TPP) and Psa, as well as manpower and skills shortages.

Taking these challenges into consideration, there is no doubt that horticulture is enjoying a ‘sweet spot’ at the moment, but industry commentators believe that there are a number of factors that will need increasing focus if we’re going to stay there.

Horticulture NZ’s programme manager, Sue Pickering, said that the industry has been through tough times, but has always been on a growth curve – no matter how many setbacks it has suffered.

“The world wants fresh healthy fruit and vegetables. Our focus on quality produce and our need to innovate, to be competitive, has taken us to the forefront as a horticultural nation.

“Kiwis have been behind many technology developments like cool store innovation and traceability mechanisms, but that kind of key competitive edge comes from recruiting good, smart people and providing them with the world class skills training that they need to help keep us out in front – good, highly skilled, resilient people will maintain our competitive edge.”

Meeting the challenge is not going to be easy because horticulture is a uniquely integrated business that requires a diverse range of competencies, particularly as the business becomes more corporatised.

Horticulture goes beyond the traditional farming or orchard framework of roles like workers, supervisors and owner / managers. As the industry continues to move to a more corporate model, the matrix of job roles in any one operation expands to include everyone from packhouse staff to logistics management, engineers, quality assurance, marketing and human resources.

“We have a huge challenge because the human resource training demands are so broad. Primary industry needs another 7,800 people and 14,900 qualifications to meet growth targets by 2025.

“To achieve those production and export growth targets we must also maintain leadership in innovation and technology infrastructure, as well as skills excellence, resilience and growing good quality produce – these are what have taken us to the top,” she said.

Business development manager at NZ Apples & Pears, Gary Jones, believes that part of the reason for the boom is the focus New Zealand puts on growing quality produce, as well as a number of natural advantages like good local conditions (temperate climate, lots of sunlight, a long spring and a long autumn) – but it could, he said, be even better.

New Zealand's apple industry is ranked number one in the world for international competitiveness, and the value of apple exports has grown dramatically over the past few years. I believe however, that more training appropriate to the market driven needs of production horticulture will help us go from great to greater.

“To do that we need to take a strong look at how to develop more capability and implement much greater use of technology across the entire supply chain, from new plantings right through to the market.”

Gary said a critical element moving forward is that education and training programmes that are rolled out across horticulture – such as those developed by Primary ITO and its industry partnership groups like the Pipfruit IPG – are based on solid research into relevant industry needs, and that they offer the appropriate skill sets and validation.

Both Sue and Gary agree that the keys to overcoming any challenges, building greater resilience and maintaining horticulture’s place as a world leader comes down to innovation and pursuing excellent quality standards, both of which are dependent on attracting good, smart people and providing market relevant, well researched training and qualifications.

“People are our greatest asset,” Sue said.” We need to put our money where our mouth is and do something about it by getting behind the push to relevant training and education for all the integrated components of the horticultural sector.”