Protected Cropping Australia Conference 2019

"We need to talk about what we are offering and what makes us special"

No matter how good a company's produce, technology and business structure, it all counts for little in the modern-day horticulture industry without the right network of people around it, according to Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) chair Nicky Mann.

Delivering a presentation at Protected Cropping Australia's 15th biennial conference on the Gold Coast, Ms Mann explained a number of growing trends around the globe, which she discovered from world study trip across several countries, in Asia and Europe.

"The most important thing at Asia Fruit Logistica which I cannot stress enough is people - people is what it is all about," she said. "We got to the show really early, and by 10am the booths were full; people eating, drinking, sharing, networking and talking. That's something that I press upon everyone. If you don't get your people right, you can forget everything else. People are the most important; your employees, relationships with seed companies, suppliers and customers. It is vital you look after your people. That was the theme at the show, there were millions of people but everyone was connected and making relationships, because it is competitive."

Another trend that Ms Mann told delegates was growing across the industry, was the growth of snacking vegetables.

"Everything was a small, convenient sized food that you could put in your mouth and eat on the go," she said. "This was all over Fruit Logistica - fruit cut up into bite sizes and beautifully displayed with lots of colours. We have got to be really proud of what we do. We grow nutritious healthy food and these guys know how to present it, so it looks enticing. It's all about snacking; small healthy bits of food."

She noted the growing use of the 'superfoods' across the globe, particularly in produce such as berries or grapes, adding another big growing trend was value adding, which is providing a new and growing avenue for increased sales for growers.

"This is really exciting because these (vegetable) guys are broad acre farmers," Ms Mann said. "They are being crunched on price, so to be able to put it into a chopping machine or a shredder and present the product so it is more convenient for consumers to buy was exciting. There were these huge halls with lots of machinery to chop and slice fruit and vegetables - this is win, win, win! Anything you can't sell at a great price; you can then put through a processor and sell it as another product. This was a trend everywhere you went; a healthy snack-sized, easy to use food and vegetables."

But taking that a step further, the PCA Chair, who also works for Family Fresh Farms in New South Wales, does see potential in the industry promoting and marketing its produce, by simply focusing on its benefits.

"We don't talk about what we are offering to consumers, and why we are special," Ms Mann said. "So, sustainable agriculture, we have got to shout from the rooftops of our glasshouses. Why we are not telling consumers know what we are doing well, just breaks my heart. How many times do we not say that our product is 'fresh' and 'sweet' or 'rich in flavour'? We are just not talking our tasty our food is; we are not communicating what people want to hear. This is the number one thing that people are buying on: the first thing is flavour, the next is freshness, the third one is price. So why aren't we talking about the flavour of our products?"

It is not just trends in the growing and production of fruit and vegetables commanding major changes across the industry, but also in the packaging, and the reduction in the amount of plastic. Ms Mann says while people may say that it is difficult to remove plastic, they are wrong, as they are a lot of materials emerging that are hygienic and also good for the environment, such as sugar cane-based products that still look presentable on supermarket shelves.

"As soon as you go onto the market with something that consumers are ready for, you are differentiating yourself straight away," she said. "What's also exciting is farmers doing it for themselves; packaging their foods with recipes, and getting in conjunction with neighbours. So, say you only grow cauliflowers or cucumbers, you can get together with neighbours and put something together to offer consumers a choice, so they are buying direct. Packaging was so beautiful and I just loved how there were some kids who were packaging cherry tomatoes with all different colours so that it was like a party in a bag, or a reusable container."

After Asia Fruit Logistica, Ms Mann travelled to Europe to tour some of the big companies in the protected cropping industry. One of the main things she noticed was the collaboration, and desire to educate the public through visitor centres. She was able to witness a number of seed trials, LED products as well as different growing techniques from gutter systems to pest management and found out how strict biosecurity was at some facilities.

"The trials were good to see for us as farmers, because you go in with a little bit more knowledge, before you go out and spend a lot of money thinking you are going to get a certain result," she said. "When you actually see the scientists proving what's working and what's not. In another breakthrough, we saw pepper, vanilla and avocados all being grown in protected cropping. This gives small growers the chance to think outside the box, and grow something that's not as competitive."

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