Australia’s horticultural industry launches major leadership and recruitment drive

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Ricardoes Strawberries & Tomatoes, a small-scale grower near Port Macquarie, NSW, is continually looking for ways to improve productivity and boost returns, from marketing initiatives to new technology.
Ricardoes Strawberries & Tomatoes, a small-scale grower near Port Macquarie, NSW, is continually looking for ways to improve productivity and boost returns, from marketing initiatives to new technology.
Merran White

Faced with an ageing horticultural industry and technological advancement in the sector, Horticulture Innovation Australia reently launched its largest-ever industry recruitment and leadership drive.

The initiative’s goals will be realised through a series of collaborative projects with partners to include government agencies, research institutions, and commercial enterprises (national and international) that have co-invested in the HIA’s industry Leadership Fund.

Aside from its levy-based investments (Pool 1), Hort Innovation manages the investment of around $20m per annum in Australian Government seed funds across various research priorities (Pool 2) which are matched with co-investor funding. Pool 2 funds, says the HIA, “are used to address cross-industry challenges and opportunities of strategic, long-term importance to Australia’s horticulture industries”.

According to Hort Innovation CEO John Lloyd, the new fund will be used to identify and encourage potential industry leaders, via investment in various industry initiatives.

“This new Leadership Fund will provide opportunities for horticulture professionals, at all stages of their careers, to propel themselves up on leadership ladder. It will also provide significant resources to spruik to the nation that horticulture is a rewarding and creative industry to join,” he said.

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics' Ladybird robot in action in a beetroot field, Cowra, NSW.
The Australian Centre for Field Robotics' Ladybird robot in action in a beetroot field, Cowra, NSW.
Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at The University of Sydney.

Findings of a 2015 University of Queensland study commissioned by Hort Innovation indicated that Australia’s horticulture sector – with nearly 80 percent of producers reporting some form of innovation – outperformed the average Aussie business with regard to take-up of innovation.

“Never before have we seen this level of innovation in the horticulture industry – we are using drones and robotic technology to increase farm efficiencies, we are combating pests with groundbreaking science and we are breeding world-first produce varieties,” Lloyd said, noting that the nation’s horticulture sector has never been so diverse or so exciting.

“Increasingly, Australian growers are also finding ways to think outside of traditional fruit and vegetable offerings,’ Lloyd said. “For example, a banana farmer in Queensland is operating a booming banana flour business after seeing dust rise from a bunch of bananas he ran over in his car.”

The challenge? According to the UQ study, 72 percent of Australia’s horticulture growers are now upwards of 50 years old – so recruiting and retaining promising young people is crucial to the future success of the sector.

“We want to attract the best and the brightest people from a range of disciplines to careers in horticulture,” Lloyd said. “However with increasing urbanisation, young people do not always view horticulture as a viable career option because they are not exposed to it – and they are missing out.”

The goal of Hort Innovation’s new leadership fund, he said, is to turn that situation around. “There is so much passion and talent among the young people that are currently getting exposure to the industry. For example, a Sydney agricultural school student recently developed biodegradable plastic out of pistachio nut shells,” Lloyd said.

“This Leadership Fund will give emerging generations of growers and agriscientists the resources to realise their ideas for the benefit of the industry, and all Australians.”

The first wave of Leadership Fund program initiatives is currently being rolled out. For further information and updates, visit the Hort Innovation site.

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