A visit to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany by representatives of New Zealand's horticultural sectors has been hailed a success.
The inaugural two-week mission, dubbed the Executive International Horticultural Immersion Programme, was led by Massey Business School and NZ Apples and Pears Inc (NZAPI).
Capability development manager at NZAPI, Erin Simpson said the aim of the trip was to show horticultural executives some international markets, horticultural value chains, and associated innovation systems.
"We wanted to bring emerging leaders away so they could be in a position to gain experiences and insights that would help them to influence things when they got back to New Zealand, particularly around capability development and market access across the horticultural value chain," said Simpson.
While there were many good, emerging rural leaders in New Zealand, Simpson said they were not always in a position, either due to cost or a focus on local markets, to gain overseas exposure.
The pilot programme followed a similar young leaders initiative held in Europe and Asia last year attended by Massey and Lincoln University undergraduate students and recent graduates who are working in industry.
"We realised there should be an opportunity for mid-level executives to experience something similar."
The delegation, which included growers, government agencies, scientists and researchers, along with industry bodies and capability providers, were given insight into Western Europe's food markets, consumer segments, retail innovations, value chains, research and education systems, and regulatory responses across horticulture.
The trip also provided New Zealand companies and agencies the opportunity to showcase their abilities and technology.
In the Netherlands, those taking part visited organisations like WorldHortiCentre, an innovation centre in the world of commercial horticulture; Wageningen University & Research, the world's number one university for agriculture and forestry research; Food Valley, agritech's 'Silicon Valley'; and Unilever's innovation centre Hive.
They also learned about automated greenhouse horticulture, including a visit to large-scale greenhouse business park Agriport, which is driving geothermal development; and Signify, a world leader in LED enhanced horticultural production systems.
Meanwhile, in Belgium, visits included Colruyt Distribution Centre, a supermarket giant leading sustainable distribution technology; the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels, where discussions focused on Brexit and what it could mean for New Zealand's primary industries; and Port of ZeeBrugge, which is using the latest heat treatment technology to eradicate menacing brown marmorated stink bugs hidden in cargo.
The group concluded their trip abroad at the world's leading fresh produce exhibition Berlin Fruit Logistica.
Massey University professor of agribusiness Hamish Gow co-led the mission and said it "exceeded expectations".
"All the participants had substantial personal growth as they've gone through the programme.
"Walking along the [horticultural] value chain has allowed them to gain numerous insights that can be applied and integrated to strengthen the New Zealand system," said Gow.
He said New Zealand leads the world in a range of technology but there was a realisation that other markets were catching up.
"The common belief that 'New Zealand feeds the world' just isn't true.
"We need to change the conversation to 'how can we feed the specific customers we want to deliver to?'"
Gow said there were opportunities across Europe for New Zealand horticultural industries.
The 19-strong mission comprised of well-established companies and government agencies such as Zespri, Plant & Food Research, MPI, T&G Global, Primary ITO, Hort NZ, NZ Young Farmers, NZKGI, Seeka, and others, among its sponsors AGMARDT, NZ Apples and Pears, and Massey University.