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Peter Wren-Hilton

The New Zealand agritech delegation has returned from the US. What happens next?

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On Friday morning, Jacqui and I were invited to a small ‘town hall’ event just outside Watsonville in Northern California. We joined 60+ local specialty crop growers listen to US Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue (pictured above) and Congressman Jimmy Panetta talk about the US Federal government’s support for the sector.

Questions from the floor covered the whole range of issues we had seen during the week. Labor (lack of & cost of); immigration policy, water & rural infrastructure including lack of broadband, climate change & public sector investment (lack of) into research.

My take? High value produce in Salinas Valley does not translate into high margin. Rising labor costs on the one hand and crazy pressure from retailers on the other are squeezing growers like never before. Whole crop varieties are shutting up shop. A number of major growers are moving their operations south (to Mexico in many cases). According to the CEO of Driscoll at the Forbes Live conference, strawberry growers, the largest single specialty crop variety in California might only have 5 years left. These folk are worried. Big time.

For New Zealand’s growing agritech sector, this environment offers huge opportunity. Our work in the field of robotics and automation was recognised by several speakers at the conference. On Wednesday morning, the New Zealand delegation was given a 90 minute slot to present to Board members of Western Growers, including its President, Tom Nassif. This session over-ran by 30. Automating many in-field processes is seen as a priority for Western Grower members. It is also one of ours.

Now as we arrive back in Aotearoa, we are planning our next steps. In the next 3-4 weeks this will include an all-day workshop at which we will download our learnings from the week. This will likely include identifying the specialty crops which offer the best opportunity for our tech to address.

The composition of the delegation means that a number of our universities, crown research institutes and industry players will collaborate together to make this happen. It maps one of Agritech New Zealand’s main purpose statements; to build export sales by connecting everyone and everything in the country’s agritech ecosystem.

Last week we saw the value of that in spades. New relationships were developed and a common resolve emerged. If New Zealand is to scale globally, it has to work together. The workshop later this month will translate that ambition into action.

It’s great to be back home. It’s now time to get this done.

Peter Wren-Hilton Peter is Executive Director of Agritech New Zealand and founder of Wharf42 in Tauranga. Peter helps organise major agritech conferences in New Zealand and offshore and connects early stage New Zealand agritech companies with international markets.