New Zealand’s nursery production industry relies on a lot more than green thumbs and good soil.
Science and innovation are two key factors that drive success, and 25 year-old Shanna Hickling from Gisborne is forging an exciting career path which she hopes more young adults will follow.
After graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Microbiology and Genetics, it was “pure luck” that she wound up working in horticulture. “I wanted to move back to Gisborne and it really was one of those small town situations where a friend spoke to a friend. Next thing I knew I had a job interview, and I started work the very next day.”
Over the past four years she’s worked in the research department for Riversun Nurseries, has managed the grapevine virus testing at Riversun’s diagnostic and research division, Linnaeus, and has recently been appointed Deputy Laboratory Manager at Linnaeus.
“A lot of our work is supporting the horticultural industry through science,” Shanna explains.
The laboratory carries out tests for a wide range of horticulture businesses to help them improve their yield and safely export the products they grow.
“We test grape vines for viruses that threaten the industry; we test fresh produce to make sure it’s safe for consumption; we check the water supply before kiwifruit growers use it in their sprays; we test the levels of sugar and acid within oranges so growers know when they are ready for harvest; and if a company has testing requirements that we do not currently offer we will explore the potential of expanding our capabilities,” she says by way of examples.
“I think it’s a really nice mixture of both indoor and outdoor work. It’s practical and focuses on science and innovation. We’re always trying to analyse what we’re doing and then look for a better way. It’s about always improving, not just doing the same thing day in, day out.”
The team of scientists she works with are trialling straw mulch as an alternative to the current plastic mulch to prevent weeds from growing and competing with the newly planted field grown grapevines for nutrients. “We’re also looking at our soil testing capabilities with the end goal of understanding what microbiology is necessary to sustain a well-balanced soil. That’s really important because you need to know about the health of your soil before expecting it to support a given crop.”
Shanna’s passion for encouraging more young adults to consider a career in horticulture (and nursery production in particular), let her to enter the New Zealand Plant Producers annual ‘Young Achievers Award’ earlier this year.
She was blown away when she won the national title, beating two other finalists in an extensive series of theory and practical tests. She says the most valuable reward is the new industry contacts she’s gained, and a big confidence boost in public speaking.
“Making you more aware of who your industry is, is another great thing to have come out of the competition experience. You realise how hugely collaborative our industry is and how everyone wants to help each other, especially when it comes staffing and technological advances.”
Shanna says there is a wide range of nursery production roles available to suit all skill levels and interests including marketing, mechanical maintenance, management roles, and even scientists.
“It’s a great career, supported by a strong and growing industry. You can get a job first, and then train through providers like Primary ITO, or you can train first and then get a job.
“It’s really flexible and there are so many different roles that cater for different people. It’s definitely a worthwhile option for young school leavers or those looking for a change in career to consider.”