The Ruataniwha dam and irrigation plan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy says.

Speaking at the National Horticultural Field Days at Showgrounds Hawke's Bay in Hastings yesterday, he said regional prosperity was riding on the dam's need for capital and skilled environmental management.

"This project, in my view, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kickstart the regional economy," he said. "We are all interested to see the outcome of the board of inquiry process."

The Government was updating its water policies in conjunction with stakeholders and he compared the Hawke's Bay unemployment rate to rain-rich Taranaki and Southland, where the rate was about half.


He said the Government was on track to meet its target of doubling exports by 2025 but more skilled people would be needed, according to a Government report to be released this week.

The country would require 50,000 new people in the economy to deal with the doubled exports, with more than half of them needing a tertiary qualification.

"That's because they will be working as food scientists, robotic engineers, consultants, bankers and IT specialists." Horticulture would require the equivalent of an extra 8000 fulltime jobs.

Massey University vice-chancellor and former Labour Cabinet Minister Steve Maharey said for a long time agriculture was seen as "a sunset industry".

The outlook had changed and New Zealand needed to continue its cultural shift from being a commodity producer to a food producer, which would help engage urban students in the sector.

"There is a real buzz about producing food in this country now," he said. "We have to work together to not let that go away."