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Future Of Australian Horticulture

The Future of Australian Horticulture

Future of Australian Horticulture
By John Mason

We’ve been here before!

In the mid 1980’s I attended an AIH seminar at Burnley in Victoria, organised by Barry Larkmann (Clive’s Dad), and heard Phil Ruthven speak on the Future of Horticulture in Australia. Phil was then, as he is now, a guru when it comes to predicting future trends in Australia; and I expect far better placed to predict the future than I.

What then has happened in the light of his and other predictions made over 2 decades ago?

  • Growth has accelerated in the north of Australia, but nothing like what was predicted.
  • Technology has had a growing impact on industry; but often not in the ways that were predicted.
  • The overall level of expertise in the Australian horticulture industry has not improved in the way that was expected
  • The world has taken on a greater global focus
  • Australia has not become the food bowl of Asia –at least not yet

In summary, many of the themes that were predicted to be important, have been important; but lots of forecasts were way off the mark when it came to detail or timing.

Lessons Learnt

The biggest lesson I have learnt is that you will encounter surprises no matter what you predict; and the only real way to succeed in the future involves two things:

First you MUST be prepared to take bold steps and accept the associated risks.

Second, you MUST manage your risks by setting up lots of contingency plans (in other words: foresee the worst case scenario and be prepared to quickly adapt when things go wrong).

The other thing that I have noticed after more than 4 decades in this industry is that many things are “cyclical”. What I mean is that certain aspects of horticulture keep going in and out of fashion, or in and out of focus with our industry.

I’ve seen the production industry plant citrus, then destroy citrus orchards, then replant, then destroy them. Same thing with grapes, and certain other crops. I’ve seen times when there are lots of specialist nurseries growing one particular type of plant; then those specialists disappear, then a decade later, new ones emerge growing the same specialist varieties again.

In the 1970’s many of us were building children’s playgrounds with community groups, then interest subsided, then in the late 80’s people started doing the same thing as if it was something that had never been done before. Again the idea subsided in the 90’s. I’ve recently seen it emerge again.

What about the Future?

After the experiences of the past, I really don’t like to get too specific about detail; but there are some things that we can say about horticulture:

My Predictions

1. Technology

Major breakthroughs in technology will have their impact upon horticulture in ways yet unforeseen. Examples:

  • Mapping of genomes which are leading to advances in understanding of biochemical processes
  • Advances in earth science, allowing a better understanding of climate

2. Political Changes

There are big factors that are likely to influence politics worldwide over the next few years including: terrorism, financial crisis, global warming, cost of oil, and the effect of emerging nations (e.g. China & India) on food prices. Some if not all of these could be hugely significant for Australian Horticulture, for example:

  • A carbon tax could greatly increase demand for tree planting –perhaps well beyond the industries ability to cope
  • Disincentives could emerge for transporting heavy foodstuffs between countries
  • Environmental change can force a shift in location or production methods for some horticultural industries

3. Current Global Financial Crisis; which will force a review of how money is managed. This may well cause a renewed interest in cost-benefit analysis; and in turn a shift in the way spending is prioritised. We can’t escape the importance of producing food through horticulture, but the priority given to amenity horticulture may be scruitinized more closely.

4. Shift in Significance of Human Wellbeing

People in the developed world have been moving toward a different lifestyle. There are many things today which are part of our lives, that were not part of our lives twenty years ago –DVD movies, Wii games, Personal Trainers, Professional Counsellors, dining out regularly, Takeaway Coffee, etc. On top of this, new cultures are moving into the territory of the developed world, bringing with them the influences of their ancient cultures. The world is not only a melting pot, but when you add other things to that, we have a lot of pressure on the “old way of living”, and that pressure & change is likely to only increase.

Hobby gardening might or might not retain its significance in the future. Nothing is certain.

5. Shortage of Space

More people live in cities. Space is at a premium. Cost of supplying services is becoming higher & higher.

There has been and will continue to be a real need to work out ways of bringing plants into these confined spaces…

  • So people can grow their own food
  • For psychological and environmental/air quality benefits

Solutions may be found with hydroponics, plant selection, roof & wall gardens, and urban forestry.

6. A Search for Something Different

Everyone wants to be an “individual”… it is in our nature, and important for our self image. This fundamental aspect of human nature drives us to keep exploring new things, new ideas and new places to brand ourselves as “individuals”. This characteristic will remain part of human nature, and results in a drive to propagate and introduce new varieties of plants, to grow and process new types of foods and other plant products.

The future will see an ever increasing range of species and cultivars explored, hybridized, trialled and introduced (or reintroduced) into cultivation. Plant breeding will continue to grow in significance in Australia, as it has done in Europe and America.

7. Horticultural Education

I’ve seen this go through many changes over the years.

When I graduated in 1971, we were told that we were not even beginning in our chosen field until we could identify 2000 plants. We were told we had to do a 3 year full time diploma and work for 5 or 10 years before we could call ourselves a horticulturist. At that time, things were similar in the UK.

I now sometimes see people coming out of a 3 month course who are able to identify 100 plants who are calling themselves a “professional horticulturist”.

Today’s society is a fast one; everything changes fast and everyone wants everything immediately - including qualifications.

At the same time, I see that the people who succeed in industry, all around the world, are those who have a greater amount of knowledge, a better capacity to communicate and solve problems, a capacity to organise themselves (and others) and a strong network of peers (as you find by being a member of something like AIH).

Today more than ever, learning has become increasingly important. Having a qualification is certainly as valuable as it has always been, but today there are plenty of unemployed degree, diploma and certificate graduates.

The most successful horticulturists today and into the future though will (irrespective of whether they are qualified or not), be people who can identify lots of plants, propagate high quality plants, clearly discern the difference between a weed and a garden plant, and grow food produce that is high quality at a cost that is lower than the competition.


Contact  John Mason   john@acs.edu.au   Phone 07 5530 4855

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