Opinion

Future leaders from the US look to Holland for an education in agriculture

21 June 2016

Briony Dunmore
Briony Dunmore

I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest speaker by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey to take part in the Practical Leadership Applications in Agriculture tour to Holland in May. I was warmly welcomed by 15 bright-eyed students, who predominately studied plant and environmental sciences and were keen to explore different cultures in agriculture leadership. But why would a university based in the US, the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, choose to visit The Netherlands? 

The answer is easy; The Netherlands is the largest exporter of tomatoes and potatoes in the world and with the US and Spain, is one the three leading producers of fruit and vegetables in the world, which relative to its size, is pretty impressive.

This small-but-mighty nation shows no signs of slowing down either. In fact, total exports in 2015 reached €82.4 billion, an increase of €700 million compared to 2014. Suddenly, visiting Holland to study leadership in agriculture is starting to look like a bit of a no-brainer for Rutgers.

Owner of Phaff Marketing and secretary of the North-Western European Potato Growers, Victor Phaff, led us on an eye-opening tour through the diverse Dutch agricultural sector. What I saw, left me in no doubt why productivity in The Netherlands is a staggering five times higher than the European average.

The trip showcased the immense practical leadership applications in agriculture there are in this big-hitter of fresh-produce nations.  Each visit, and each individual speaker presented us with their own distinct agricultural journey laced with a shared passion for Dutch agronomy.

Day one: On a visit to CAH Vilentum: University of Applied Sciences we were met by Janny Peltjes of De Groene Vileg, an exciting entrepreneur and farmer’s daughter making waves in research methods and pollinator decline. I was struck by how the university is professionalising the concept of leadership in our sector. The degree presents a dynamic career choice for scientific students with even the buildings themselves portraying the possibilities afforded by environmental science as the whole university is located inside a two-storey glasshouse, the largest in Europe heated by the soil and cooled by rainwater. Janny Peltjes herself expounded her own research on affordable soil diagnostics; an exciting concept that is looking at problems we are not even facing yet. I was so impressed by how the university is marrying cutting-edge scientific study with agricultural leadership. This is just the kind of approach I feel would attract top-level entrants into our sector in the UK.

Day two: At 5am, and slightly blurry-eyed, we headed to the flower auction for an access-all-areas tour of Royal Flora Holland, conducted by the knowledgeable Marcel de Romph of OZ Export BV. Holland can offer much more than tulips and onions. In fact, Aalsmeer Flora Holland generates a modest €4.6billion turnover a year, has over 3,000 employees and sells 12.6 billion units annually. It was the first time I had to been to a horticulture auction but what I quickly learned was how modern technology is changing this traditional institution as increasingly traders are bidding online from their offices or even their homes. I admit feeling a pang of sadness at the potential passing of this tradition as the traders told me the halls were less busy than they have been. But I realise that this is the way many parts of our trade are going as technology helps to drive efficiency and cost savings within the supply chain, freeing up traders to spend more time at their desks buying and selling rather than travelling to and from the auction.

This visit was followed by a trip to the US Embassy to learn about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the EU and US. Being the only Brit in the room imminently casting a vote in the upcoming EU Referendum, this was certainly an interesting topic! And not just beneficial for the US students to learn of the future trading environment they will be operating in, but also an eye-opener for me in terms of what we could lose out on if the Brexit vote wins.

The day ended at Tomatoworld, an interactive greenhouse facility and education centre shining a light on Dutch horticulture and certainly a fun way for families to spend a day out and open children’s eyes to where their food comes from. We talk a lot about connecting people with their produce in the UK and this visitor centre certainly seems to be leading the way in Holland.  

Day three: Perhaps my favourite element of the tour was a morning with Gerjan Snippe of Bio Brass. Forward-thinking Gerjan owns an entirely organic fresh vegetable farm with a unique vision of “bringing it back to nature” yet he is able to mass produce and supply large British retailers with his sustainable, rotated crops. I found it utterly engaging as I know how hard it is to supply the UK retailers and to come across somebody who is managing to do that entirely organically, relying on crop rotation and sustainable methods to produce large volumes was truly inspiring. We hear often how organic is not a long-term sustainable solution to feed the world, but here is one man mass-producing completely organically.  I feel that there is much the largest of the UK organic growers could learn here in order to expand.

Day four: The penultimate day consisted of a visit to a wind farm in Domineesweg and a visit to a modern dairy farm with milk and feed robots. In fact, we learned that around 7,000 dairy farmers sell into the same milk processing plant in The Netherlands, making it impossible to differentiate or to add-value at a profit. In many ways this is a problem the fresh produce trade also faces; how do I differentiate a non-manufactured product? Certainly this is a challenge but now with new players such as UberEATS, HelloFresh and Amazon Fresh entering the UK retail scene, the opportunities for us in produce to add value in quality or provenance appear to be higher than for those in the dairy sector.

Day five: Before heading off to the airport and waving goodbye to a truly unforgettable week in the Netherlands and in case we needed reminding of just how important horticulture is to the country, we visited the 4,000 greenhouses delightfully known as The Glass City. These span a whopping 9,000 hectares and produce €7.2 billion worth of vegetables, fruit, plants, and flowers a year. It reminded me of just how forward thinking this nation, the inventor of the glasshouse, is.

In the run-up to the first Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference, being able to get absolutely to the heart of the Dutch agricultural industry further firmed our decision to host a celebration of this pioneering world leader in Amsterdam later on this year.

With talk of the skills-gap in the food sector and the lack of knowledge around the great opportunities that lie within agriculture, Dr Mary Nikola and her team at Rutgers are leading the way in educating young people into the complexity of our industry. It is so refreshing to see an academic institution as revered as Rutgers educating not singularly in agriculture, but in agricultural leadership. 

Facing a looming requirement for greater efficiency in mass food production, the need to attract new intelligent entrants into the sector has never been higher. We should be looking upon these up-and-coming leaders as the future innovators and problem-solvers of our industry. 

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