Border closures over the past two years have shut off our access to skilled horticulturalists from overseas. Recruiting these skills locally was almost impossible, highlighting how few locally trained horticulturalists we have in New Zealand.
I find it hard to get my head around this because in the past education has been valued in our industry. New Zealand has produced some of the world's best horticulturalists and both Lincoln and Massey Universities were at the forefront of horticulture education, globally. We still have world class agriculture universities, but the once strong horticulture programmes have fallen away.
So what happened?
To be fair, this is a global issue. Most OECD countries are struggling to attract young people into their horticulture industries but many have recognised the issue early and taken action. They understand the importance of skilled horticulturalists and their role in issues like food security and the environment. The exemplar is Holland, but Europe, the U.S. and the U.K. are all actively dealing with this.
It's hard to blame the universities and training providers. Yes, they chased opportunities like overseas fee paying students to the detriment of programmes like horticulture. The reality is that horticulture education is expensive when compared to providing programmes like business, so it requires involvement of the industry to ensure it succeeds. The farming sector understands this and has worked together to support its education programmes, which remain relatively strong.
Solving this problem is not easy. After years of falling student numbers and being undervalued, many of the skilled teachers and lecturers have moved on and the teaching laboratories and glasshouses are run down. To reverse this, almost everything would need to be rebuilt. Perhaps the Covid crisis is the trigger to start thinking about this.
Technology and education are critical to improving productivity. They go hand in hand, meaning that you can't invest in one without the other.
In 2021 the Productivity Commission released a series of reports highlighting that New Zealand businesses have slow productivity growth when compared to businesses in similar countries, meaning that we are working harder for the same outcome. The Commission's solution is for businesses to adopt technology and for industries to drastically upskill their workforce.
So-called 'Horticulture 4.0' is already here and each week new equipment and technology is arriving, which is fundamentally changing how we produce and grow plants. The businesses bringing this equipment in are now hunting for horticulturalists to deal with the increased production.
Employing horticulturalists from overseas will likely become harder as other countries work to keep them for their own industries. We should be doing the same by training more of our own and offering career opportunities that will keep them in the country and in our industry.
Solving this will require a new model and new ways of thinking. Few people are satisfied with what is in place, including industry, the institutions, and the students themselves.
The need for change is urgent and the time is right to get underway. The wider education system is under review and we know that the incoming generation of school leavers is very interested in plants. Class sizes in school subjects that involve gardening and the environment are more popular than ever and online learning in horticulture is at a record high. We just need to connect with students in their world and make a pathway for them into our industry.
By NZPPI CE Matthew Dolan