Under the Mikeroscope
As one horticulture conference finishes, planning for the next one begins. For many years the same format has been used for the horticulture and other conferences.
Welcome to the conference of the future
This has seen some field trips, some tech transfer, and the main conference agenda focused on business sessions with presentations and panel discussions on topics of interest to growers.
Feedback from this year’s conference, with the theme, Our food story, has been uniformly positive. It was noted that running that theme from the orchard and commercial garden through to the consumer gave the conference purpose and meaning. There were also very favourable comments on the awards dinner where both NZ Apples & Pears and Horticulture New Zealand’s awards were presented. These awards are covered later in this edition of the magazine but were particularly poignant this year with the inclusion of the inaugural environmental award. It was also first conference held in Christchurch since the damaging earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Around 450 delegates attended the conference: about 300 of them were growers. I would like to thank the conference organising teams and our lead organiser, Eve Williams.
When we promoted this year’s conference, we asked growers what agenda items they would like to see at future conferences. Without exception, the comment made was that it would be good to have a conference that was more hands-on, with a focus on future technologies such as drones, precision agriculture and smart irrigation techniques. Growers want to see what is on offer, as well as hear about it.
Therefore, as a trial and to meet growers’ requests, we are planning to hold a hands-on conference in 2019, at Mystery Creek, near Hamilton. Dates have already been booked, so please mark your calendars for next year’s conference at Mystery Creek from 31 July to 2 August, 2019. The conference will have the use of entire Mystery Creek site, which is about 113 hectares. Mystery Creek has resource
consent to undertake any horticultural activity including flying drones, provided permission has been sought from Hamilton airport’s control tower. Approaches are being made to other organisations to assist with hands-on outdoor demonstrations and activities so that there is broad base appeal for the conference. It is intended that there will also be some business sessions held in the traditional conference format, and of course, the participating organisations, including Hort NZ, will run their annual general meetings.
I hope by changing the focus from an indoors and largely speaker-based conference to one of hands-on demonstrations and futuristic ideas that larger numbers of growers can be attracted to the 2019 conference. Mystery Creek can seat 1,000 and so that is our target.
Your feedback is invited on this concept and you can tell us what you would like to see at the conference. If you also have ideas of organisations you think could contribute to making the conference hands-on with practical demonstrations can you please let me know? I look forward to seeing you all at next year’s conference and to making the change to a more practical conference a success.
Without exception, the comment made was that it would be good to have a conference that was more hands-on, with a focus on future technologies such as drones, precision agriculture and smart irrigation techniques.
He heralded the beginning of a new era for the product group, with the first appointment of an independent chair. When he took on the job, he was no tomato expert, but he did know a lot about managing people, and in his role as a partner at Deloitte, he had led a Horticulture New Zealand strategy review. “Then I constantly whinged when they didn’t implement all of the things I thought were important.” The then chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, Peter Silcock, encouraged Alasdair to take on some of the challenges and proposed changes himself by accepting the role of chairman of TomatoesNZ.
Alasdair learnt the hard way that moving from paper to practice is not always easy. He did, however leave a sector that has grown in value, and now has a truly collaborative approach at the board level. “People left their competitiveness and animosity at the door to work for the good of the whole sector.”
He admits he had never been inside a hothouse until after he was appointed to the role, something he saw as a “significant benefit”. “I had no interests, I was absolutely neutral; bigger players could confide in me”
He admits he had never been inside a hothouse until after he was appointed to the role, something he saw as a “significant benefit”. “I had no interests, I was absolutely neutral; bigger players could confide in me,” he says. The formula worked so well, his replacement, Barry O’Neil, is also not a tomato grower.
Alasdair says he has thoroughly enjoyed his six years at the helm:
“they are a fantastic bunch of people”. Alasdair had big plans to foster collaboration between tomato growers.
“Across the whole of horticulture we need collaboration to create scale; if we export we don’t want to compete against other New Zealand exporters,” he says.
However, collaboration is “virtually impossible” without breaching the Commerce Commission regulations. “We need to be so careful with the information we collect and share,” he says. His aim to share growing plans and level out supply came unstuck
when he realised they were completely illegal. He found even sharing industry best practice was difficult with big players.
He is adamant the only way the tomato sector can grow is by exporting; markets have been established in Australia, Japan, Pacific Islands, and US/Canada. “We need to focus on quality rather than quantity, a premium product for a premium price,” he says. Close to 10 percent of the national crop is exported, but this has a massive effect on the overall profitability of local growers, keeping times of oversupply to a minimum.
He is a big fan of Horticulture New Zealand, and would have preferred to sign up to the biosecurity user-pay framework GIA (Government Industry Agreement) through that umbrella. “Instead we had to make a separate legal entity to sign GIA.” He believes pan sector representation is the key within the horticulture industry. The GIA signing was still a big achievement, and has led to a better relationship with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), and better information flow both ways.
TomatoesNZ represents its members - either directly or through Hort NZby working on market access, long distance shipping research, and pest control. The biggest benefactors of these activities were undoubtedly smaller growers. “Three or four of the bigger growers may club together and do this anyway, but it would be the 100 to 200 smaller growers who would miss out.” Alasdair says despite this, the most vociferous support for TomatoesNZ comes from the bigger players. Highs and lows
One of the milestones during his time at the helm was to inform the public that imported tomatoes had been irradiated.
“We fought for continued labelling so people could make an informed choice; they could buy cheaper irradiated product off-season, or locally produced tomatoes.” Particularly Australian tomatoes need to be irradiated to reduce the risk posed by Queensland Fruit Fly to the New Zealand industry.
One of the biggest frustrations was being unsuccessful in importing a parasitic wasp for the problematic >
Outgoing TomatoesNZ independent chair Alasdair MacLeod, right, hands over the “chair” to his replacement Barry O'Neil. Photo Ivor Earp-Jones.
glasshouse pest, white fly. TomatoesNZ unsuccessfully campaigned to bring in the parasitic wasp, Macrolophus pygmaeus, which predates on white fly and psyllid.
White fly has been problematic in cover crop tomatoes, and one parasitic wasp has been used in the control of the pest for 25 years. The second would have reduced the need for sprays further.
Alasdair has had a long and interesting career, hailing from northern Scotland where English was his second language, he moved to New Zealand on finishing an under-graduate degree. He worked in Gisborne as an engineer, completing an MBA in New Zealand.
Alasdair talks retirement, he moved from Wellington to Hawke’s Bay as a lifestyle choice just before taking on the role with TomatoesNZ. The MacLeods have a family bach at Mahia, and wife Mary is originally from Gisborne. They know the East Coast, and Alasdair says Napier is a fabulous place to live.
“We fought for continued labelling so people could make an informed choice; they could buy cheaper irradiated product off-season, or locally produced tomatoes.”
He hasn’t been idle in Hawke’s Bay. He is the chairman of the Napier Port, and the Hawke’s Bay branch of Export NZ; previously as a partner at Deloitte he was particularly interested in developing the export sector. He has directorships on IT companies Silverstripe, Optimal Workshop and Radium; he was on the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council strategic development committee, and is a Trustee of Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Alasdair feels after six years with TomatoesNZ, it is time to hand over the reigns, to bring some fresh ideas. “I will miss the board; they have been consistently brilliant for six years; after a quiet start, in less than a year everyone was participating fully. There was no lack of debate but also no bitterness,” he says.
He also commends the work of general manager Helen Barnes, who he describes as “utterly brilliant”. “She is incredibly hard working and passionate about the wider horticultural sector. Her passion and dedication kept the whole thing moving.”
He is optimistic there will be an increase in tomato exports, but warns there is no future in bulk loose product. “People will pay for ethically grown tomatoes where there are no chemical residues and they haven’t been irradiated,” he says. New varieties and an explosion of tomato “snacking options” will set the industry up well for the future.
▴ Alasdair MacLeod at home on his avocado orchard in Poraite, near Napier.