Marnix Wolters from Netherlands-based HAS University of Applied Sciences presented a seminar at the recent Amsterdam Produce Show outlining how the venerable institution planned on training the agrifood talents of tomorrow to contribute to industry. Produce Business UK was on hand to listen to Wolters and his colleague Peter Scheer.
The fresh produce industry, much like the wider world it inhabits, is constantly changing. What was once thought new and visionary soon becomes commonplace and ordinary. As such the sector has to keep on top of, in fact, positively push forward and encourage perpetual innovation. It has to attract the very best and most talented individuals into its ranks.
Wolters, a lecturer in International Food and Agribusiness, believes that the problem is partly because a lot of talent is being wasted in the fresh produce sector. And he argued that too many students are not trained to fulfil the role they end up doing.
His talk, entitled Underpinning the future of the Produce Industry, detailed the variety of ways HAS University is attempting to address these concerns.
“We believe that by continuously stimulating and developing talents we can truly contribute to a stronger agrifood sector and living environment. Preparing the individual will allow them to contribute fully within the industry.”
HAS, he said, attempted to do this by creating bridges between HAS, companies and society, with a confident, entrepreneurial approach focused on the development of the individual - both student and employee.
“The fresh produce sector is versatile and flexible, our courses - bachelor degree programmes, company training programmes, plus research and consultancy in the agribusiness, food and living environment sector - prepare them for this.”
Wolters said the aim was to get them - the industry - and those wishing to work in the industry prepared as confident, involved and entrepreneurial professionals, and ready to make a change in the industry.
“We believe we can do that.“
Founded just after the end of World War II in 1948, the original intention of HAS was to deliver to industry professionals in technology, processing and producing of food.
He expanded: “Fast forward 68 years and we’ve included entrepreneurship, we’ve incorporated an international approach and by now we have 3,000 students spread across our two campuses studying across 10 accredited programmes. And that ranges from traditional courses - where we started, the food processing professionals - to environmental engineers, applied biologists and food innovators and those people making new and innovative food designs.”
In terms of lecturing, HAS doesn’t hire traditional teachers, it employs professionals. Wolters explained that he was never trained as a teacher. He worked in industry.
“I was a trader,” he told the audience, “just like a lot of you, getting in contact with buyers and suppliers, until I got in contact with HAS and I was trained to be a teacher. So I bring the theory of what I do but I can illustrate it with what I have learned in the past.”
“To grow crops, to experiment with new varieties and new growing conditions for example. We work together with industry to innovate, pioneer and develop new things.
“We also do that in the food industry - we train people to develop new food concepts or improve current concepts, to improve efficiency, to improve sustainability and improve the quality of the product. How can you do that without having some practical training? You can’t do it by reading a book alone. We’re an applied science university and this is where we apply.”
He explained that the three pillars to HAS are education, knowledge transfer and knowledge development. In reality, this was extended over a four-year course as follows:
Year 1 - Orientation and selection
Year 2 - Comprehension and application
Year 3 - Individual development and internships: Students travel abroad, putting this theory into practice, it broadens talents and ideas, and each student follows the path that they want, each individual can follow their talents
Year 4 - Professionalisation - Consciously using and applying knowledge and skills maturing into the professionals that the industry needs.
“One example is the International Food and Agribusiness Programme,” he said. “Industry asked for it. Students that we teach are trained to do international business in agrifood, sustainable development for global food systems throughout each part of the supply chain and understand each segment of the food chain. Moreover they can make sustainability a business case and push for innovative developments.”
Part of these courses involve applying new technologies, looking at new methods such as vertical farming and new types of production. For example growing without light. Students are also sent out into the field to work with farmers and growers. A lot of this is done in developing countries. Wolters said this cooperation between Western countries and those in developing areas enhances the supply chain.
HAS is also looking at ways of reducing waste in the supply chain. Wolters recounted a tale of how a student who travelled to Guatemala to work on a coffee plantation set up a system creating biogas from used coffee pods which also cleaned the water.
“So they have clean water for the farmers to use and their own energy,” Wolters said. “A win-win situation, and on top of that they reduce the waste. We use everything we have - all those leftovers, all those residues to create added value. How? By looking for alternatives. Not travelling along the path that we have been doing for the last 50 years. We look to the future, we look at the needs that we have and what steps we can take to get to that point.”
Wolters’ colleague Peter Scheer then took to the floor. He reiterated that HAS’ intention is to train the professionals of today and the professionals of tomorrow.
“At HAS Training and Consultancy we’re connecting people,” he said. “We are the bridge from the school without walls - that’s HAS University - via HAS Training and Consultancy. We connect students, teachers and companies to get a higher level of knowledge.”
“We want to guide entrepreneurs to get new ideas and new results, to work across a variety of disciplines from food technology and innovation to environmental studies to horticulture. But whatever is being studied its with industry in mind.
“We want to know what questions are being asked in the industry. What are the companies wanting to find out? What are the opportunities for those companies? So every day we are talking to companies. We try to solve the problems and bring solutions. We can do that in our own facilities; our research equipment - but we can also do it in situ at companies.”
Maintaining the challenges laid down by industry and the realities of the marketplace will keep the finest minds of this generation, and the next, active today and tomorrow. It’s worth the fresh produce industry speaking up now to make sure their voice - and needs - are heard.