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Why technology is becoming the ultimate success factor for horticulture

The old adage "you can't manage what you can't measure" is fast becoming a central theme for horiculture. This was evident at HortConnections, the recently held PMA conference in Brisbane, where the Cucumber team found their thinking widely shared. Brian Bell, CEO and Tim King, CTO, attended this important AU/NZ industry gathering.

Being able to trace a piece of fruit to its origin, knowing precisely which trees are under-performing, or using sensing to make timely decisions related to crop health is well within the current technical capability in the horticulture tech sector.

So why aren’t we seeing those methodologies widely utilised across New Zealand? The answer lies in data. Or, to be more precise, in the fact that data is insufficiently captured and not widely shared.

This notion came across loud and clear from various conference speakers. “Many expressed a sense of urgency in communicating the need to embrace technology and share data,” recalls Tim King. He couldn’t agree more and suggests that data is, in fact, the crux of the matter. “It adds value for everybody concerned,” he says.

Provided you capture the appropriate data, you’ll never again find yourself second guessing your orchard operation; you can accurately understand – and address – a multitude of aspects such as the precise profitability of your operation or the yield variation within a specific area of the orchard which would undoubtedly provide competitive advantage.

However, in reality it seems the industry is still not close to reaching this nirvana, with the measuring and sharing of data still being very limited. What’s more, it’s largely geared towards ensuring compliance and as such it does little to help growers beyond ensuring their product can get to market.

“The information that’s currently being gathered doesn’t actually help growers achieve meaningfully higher returns or reduce their risks,” explains Tim. In order to fine-tune a growing operation, you need vertically integrated data that’s at your fingertips and in real time. In other words: what’s needed is a higher level of granularity.

Achieving the best possible outcome requires an industry-wide collaborative approach and a commitment to measure data all the way along the chain, from plant selection and orchard management through to harvesting, sorting, transporting and point-of-sale.

Several presentations cited international case studies where extensive data capture and sharing is used widely, including examples from the Netherlands where all growers have access to market data in real time. Even comparable horticultural economies, such as Israel and Ireland, have long ago embraced technology and are forging ahead as a result. The key, in all instances, was a collaborative approach towards capturing and sharing of data.

So what are the lessons for New Zealand’s horticulture industry? If you ask Brian or Tim, they’ll tell you that it boils down to an unprecedented opportunity for improvement through technology. Through technology, which allows real scalability for horticulture operations. If you capture quality data, share it and apply machine learning to derive meaningful insights, you’ll be able to manage the many variability factors that are so prevalent across horticulture. Ultimately it takes quality management to a new level.

Given the inherent impact on quality and consistency, it’s easy to see the value for individual brands.

As they say, “watch this space”, it’s the inevitable future of the industry. If you’d like to know how the Cucumber team can help your horticultural operation, please get in touch