How did we get into Horticulture?

As first seen in the Orchardist, March 2019

Jim Mercer, Horticultural Consultant                                                                                                                        Fruition Horticulture, Marlborough

Illustration: Hope Walker 

It is an understatement to say that Horticulture is an important industry in New Zealand. Fresh Facts figures for year ending June 2017 show an $8.8 billion industry and 10.3 percent of New Zealand’s merchandise exports (dominated by Kiwifruit, Wine and Apples) and yet many young people looking at career choices are not aware of the opportunities, innovation and complexity of our wonderful industry. This can often be because of the perception of the entry level work being manual, repetitive and mundane. These perceptions can then often be re-enforced when bright young students take the holiday jobs which Horticulture is very good at providing.

Fresh Facts figures for year ending June 2017 show an $8.8 billion industry and 10.3 percent of New Zealand’s merchandise exports (dominated by Kiwifruit, Wine and Apples)

Results from a brief survey of colleagues and contacts currently working in Horticulture uncovered as you might expect within any industry a diverse selection of stories as to how and why they have made ‘growing’ a career. They loosely fall into the following categories:

  1. Following on in the family business – being around the family business from an early age often provides the opportunity, interest and in some cases an element of obligation to continue the business into the next generation.
  2. A definitive career choice – there are well mapped out pathways for both secondary and tertiary education through from school into University, Institutes of Technology and on the job training schemes
  3. Needing a job and money – Horticulture chosen by default either because it was an advertised position or because it is the predominant industry in your area. Often this starts with seasonal work available for both school and tertiary students. Many of those in this category decided to take Horticulture rather than an office or factory job because they preferred outdoor work or simply because it was available.
  4. Opportunities to travel – Horticulture is a great way to see the world, seasonal work can be followed around the globe enabling a way to fund extensive travel on a budget.

In a surprising number of cases some very successful people in the industry with stellar careers fall into categories three and four. In my survey one business owner went fruit picking because ‘he needed golf clubs’, many current Senior managers started at the entry level and then realised they enjoyed being outdoors and that there was so much more to growing than just those initial repetitive tasks. A whole number of others were hooked by the travel, e.g. following wine vintages around the globe and then found it to be a passion and made it into a career.

Many participants of the survey mentioned that there are often misconceptions about our industry and that we need to promote it better to our young people

In my own case I was keen to leave an academic school in the UK and had already been working on a market garden at weekends and school holidays. At age 16 I wasn’t in love with Horticulture, I needed the money and I liked being outside. After hours of hoeing weeds, digging leeks out of frozen ground and picking ice covered sprouts with numb fingers I started to review my options in life. The work was mainly hard manual labour and the business was poorly managed. Weed and pest control were often late or non-existent leading to unnecessary and unsuccessful hand weeding or fighting through clouds of whitefly in the glasshouse tomatoes. However, it opened my eyes to the possibilities when we did get it right. The satisfaction of a well grown and harvested crop, free of pest and disease became a goal but I had little knowledge or opportunity to help achieve that goal.

Education was of course the answer, without the necessary entry level qualifications for university I attended day release supported by my employer, followed by Diplomas in Glasshouse Crops and Commercial Fruit Production. Education proved to be the stepping stone to a far wider field of opportunities enabling a foot in the door with a large fruit growing company and leading to positions in propagation, technical advice, and farm management. Then a move to an importer and marketing company in London where I experienced an insight into global Horticulture with positions in quality management, procurement and sales. Emigrating to New Zealand 17 years ago as a family lifestyle decision led me to the booming Marlborough wine industry and my current position as a consultant for Fruition Horticulture.

Over the years all that initial ground work on the market garden has been invaluable. The understanding of soil, water, nutrition, pest and disease control, the value of the crop, the marketing requirements, machinery operation and maintenance were all initiated whilst working out on the land. Education took the understanding and opportunities to the next level, but we must not discount the value of exposing our keen new entrants to the physical tasks in the field or greenhouse. The trick is then showing them the opportunities that await beyond those tasks.

Many participants of the survey mentioned that there are often misconceptions about our industry and that we need to promote it better to our young people. Its just plain wrong that its only hard, repetitive, physical work in the elements and yet often many people seem to view it that way.   

In our industry today one can pursue just about any facet of the business, you can be a machinery operator, lawyer, scientist, technologist, engineer, field worker, consultant, IT manager – the list goes on. The ever-increasing development and uptake of new technologies opens yet more future avenues for potential careers. A study by the University of Waikato suggests that there will be a further 29,000 further jobs created in kiwifruit alone by 2030.1. We need to attract many more people into Horticulture if we are to fulfill the potential of the industry.

In our industry today one can pursue just about any facet of the business

Some of our respondents saw these opportunities at a young age, particularly those with a scientific bent who recognised the large number of opportunities for research and development in Horticulture. Many of these people made a distinct decision to study Horticulture and science at school followed by gaining relevant tertiary qualifications and have often ended up in the research and consultancy aspects of the industry.

Several female respondents felt that some women still see Horticulture as a man’s world when there are equally as many opportunities for women. Although gender diversity is increasing, they commented that many women they talk with, still feel it is an industry that they are unlikely to succeed in, whereas the respondents considered there is now so much more support to ensure success.

What I have learnt from this small investigation is that entering our industry can be stumbled upon or sought after, entered by necessity, inherited, pursued as a dream or as a key to global travel. One thing is for sure we urgently need to recruit many more people to fulfil the potential growth that’s currently booming in our main categories and to support the rapidly expanding new technologies. We need more and better trained people with a wider range of skills and we need to promote the image and opportunities of our fantastic industry.

1.Fresh Facts 2017