A recent visit to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany by representatives of New Zealand's horticultural sectors has been hailed a success, with those taking part being able to build networks and knowledge of opportunities that they will be able to leverage in the future.

THE inaugural two-week mission, dubbed the Executive International Horticultural Immersion Programme, was led by Massey Business School and NZ Apples and Pears Inc (NZAPI).

Erin Simpson, capability development manager at NZAPI, told The Country's Rowena Duncum the aim of the trip was to provide exceptional horticultural executives with a comparative immersion into selected international markets, horticultural value chains, and associated innovation systems.

"We wanted to bring emerging leaders away so they could be in a position to gain experiences and insights that would help them to influence things when they got back to New Zealand, particularly around capability development and market access across the horticultural value chain," he said.

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Simpson was conscious there are a lot of good, emerging rural leaders in New Zealand but they are not always in a position, either due to cost or a focus on local markets, to gain overseas exposure.

The pilot programme followed a similar young leaders initiative held in Europe and Asia last year attended by Massey and Lincoln University undergraduate students and recent graduates who are working in industry.

Exec IHIP visit Wageningen University, which is using light spectrum to improve the growth, health, resistance and architecture of plants. Photo / Supplied
Exec IHIP visit Wageningen University, which is using light spectrum to improve the growth, health, resistance and architecture of plants. Photo / Supplied

"We realised there should be an opportunity for mid-level executives to experience something similar," Simpson said.

The delegation, which included growers, government agencies, scientists and researchers, along with industry bodies and capability providers, were given insight into Western Europe's food markets, consumer segments, retail innovations, value chains, research and education systems, and regulatory responses across horticulture.

The trip also provided New Zealand companies and agencies the opportunity to showcase their abilities and technology.

Exec IHIP visit Belgium's Port of Zeebrugge, the largest port in the world for importing and exporting roll-on roll-off cargo. Photo / Supplied
Exec IHIP visit Belgium's Port of Zeebrugge, the largest port in the world for importing and exporting roll-on roll-off cargo. Photo / Supplied

In the Netherlands, those taking part visited organisations like WorldHortiCentre, an innovation centre in the world of commercial horticulture; Wageningen University & Research, the world's number one university for agriculture and forestry research; Food Valley, agritech's 'Silicon Valley'; and Unilever's innovation centre Hive.

They also learned about automated greenhouse horticulture, including a visit to large-scale greenhouse business park Agriport, which is driving geothermal development; and Signify, a world leader in LED enhanced horticultural production systems.

Meantime, in Belgium, visits included Colruyt Distribution Centre, a supermarket giant leading sustainable distribution technology; the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels, where discussions focused on Brexit and what it could mean for New Zealand's primary industries; and Port of ZeeBrugge, which is using the latest heat treatment technology to eradicate menacing brown marmorated stink bugs hidden in cargo.

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The group concluded their trip abroad at the world's leading fresh produce exhibition Berlin Fruit Logistica.

Massey University professor of agribusiness Hamish Gow co-led the mission and said it "exceeded expectations".

"All the participants had substantial personal growth as they've gone through the programme.

Listen to Rowena Duncum interview Hamish Gow and Erin Simpson on The Country below:

"Walking along the [horticultural] value chain has allowed them to gain numerous insights that can be applied and integrated to strengthen the New Zealand system."

New Zealand leads the world in a whole range of technology but there's been a realisation that everyone else is catching up on us fast, he said.

"The common belief that 'New Zealand feeds the world' just isn't true.

"We need to change the conversation to 'how can we feed the specific customers we want to deliver to?'"

New Zealand's primary industries can feed around 30 million people out of a world which is rapidly headed for nine billion, Gow said.

Exec IHIP learn insights at Wageningen University & Research, the world's number one university for agriculture and forestry research. Photo / Supplied
Exec IHIP learn insights at Wageningen University & Research, the world's number one university for agriculture and forestry research. Photo / Supplied

"It's a small group of people we can feed. So we need to focus on how we can deliver them highly profitable experiences that they want well beyond just products.

"There are mutually prosperous opportunities across Europe for our horticultural industries," he added.

The 19-strong mission comprised of well-established companies and government agencies such as Zespri, Plant & Food Research, MPI, T&G Global, Primary ITO, Hort NZ, NZ Young Farmers, NZKGI, Seeka, and others, among its sponsors AGMARDT, NZ Apples and Pears, and Massey University.

"We selected people across industry who possess high leadership potential to individually and collectively drive collaborative innovation, capacity building and transformational change across the horticultural sector – and provide recommendations to New Zealand industry and government."

Gow said doors for New Zealand's horticultural sectors are open.

"We just need to walk through them."