Creating opportunities for young professionals in floriculture

Jungle Talks owners and husband and wife team Ed Smit and Renee Snijders.

Following a successful edition in January 2023, Jungle Talks is partnering again with leading floricultural suppliers to organise the Pro Manager Mastercourse Floriculture in the Netherlands and Germany from 15 – 26 January 2024. Jungle Talks owners and husband and wife team Ed Smit and Renee Snijders explain how the course allows participants to immerse themselves in Dutch greenhouse floriculture while meeting with industry peers and learning about other cultures.

Ed and Renee have different backgrounds in horticulture. Renee ended up working in floriculture by accident. Following her studies in Oriental Languages and Communication in her hometown Maastricht, she received a scholarship to continue studying Mandarin Chinese and economics in Beijing, China.

She graduated in 2003 and wanted to stay in the city. Finding a job at that time due to SARS was not easy. The only opening was as an administrative assistant at the agricultural department of the Dutch embassy in Beijing.

These were exciting times with China entering the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and preparing its bid for the 2008 Olympics. Many companies found their way to China, and although she did not know what to expect from her job, she genuinely liked the working environment.

After a year at the embassy, she moved to Kunming to head the Netherlands Business Support Office, which mainly focused on floriculture. At that time, companies such as Anthura, Van den Berg Roses, Geerlofs and Chrysal opened branches in China. She recalls how it was a time of pioneering, often done by young, ambitious people. She has fond memories of Kunming, which she thinks is a nice place to live.

Then she met Ed, who was already based in Costa Rica. So, it was clear that one of them had to move to build a long-term relationship. Renee moved from Kunming to San Jose in 2009, and they have been working together ever since.

Born and raised in Maasdijk, Netherlands, Ed Smit is a self-acclaimed horticulture aficionado. He says he breathes all things horticulture and always wanted to get the story out and connect the industry with society.

After moving to Costa Rica in 2002, he became the Central American distributor for Koppert. He also became active in tourism mainly to learn from a sector that is attractive in the eyes of consumers. He wanted to know what it is to work in an industry that IS sexy and attracts media and celebrities. Ed says that his experience acquired in tourism enabled him to connect with people from outside the industry. He believes that, in essence, what he and Renee are doing is connecting tourism to horticulture, some weird kind of cross-sectoral innovation ‘avant la lettre’.

FloraCulture International: What made you set up the first Pro Manager Mastercourse Floriculture in 2018?

Ed Smit: “We’ve been organising courses for horticultural managers since 2012. Initially, the courses were subsidised and aimed at growers in Central America. We saw the need and potential for sharing knowledge and hands-on experience from the onset. In 2018, the government stopped funding; we set up a course for horticultural professionals worldwide, the Pro Manager Mastercourse Floriculture.”

Can you describe what the Mastercourse is about and which class of growers it is targeting?

Renee Snijders: “Mastercourse participants are typically ‘future leaders’, young and talented managers in floriculture with at least five years of work experience. They must be on track towards or are already in a board of directors/general management position. Our ‘students’ are ambitious and keen to make a difference within their company and the sector. Still, participants are diverse; some focus more on growing and the tech, while others fulfil a general management or commercial/sales position. This works very well, and connecting with industry peers is undoubtedly the greatest added value of the course. Importantly, the application process considers the values and backgrounds of the company ‘students’ represent. We focus on representatives from future-proof and purpose-driven companies.”

What has been the most valuable thing you learned yourself along the way?

Renee: “Two key issues drive the success of the Mastercourse. The first one is about selecting a group of participants that represent diversity, geographically and crop-wise, but also reflect coherence. In addition, make sure that the programme runs smoothly, including and especially visits to our partners. We work with a group of purpose-driven and future-oriented companies who pay to receive our Mastercourse groups. We value this greatly because this helps to keep participation fees accessible but also ensures their commitment. However, companies must understand that a Mastercourse visit does not entail a standard company visit or commercial presentation. We bring along future leaders who are curious about floriculture’s future. It’s of the utmost importance that we can have a purposeful meeting and discuss this in an interactive way. Most partners understand this well on paper, but they need the Mastercourse’s practical experience to grab what we truly want. Finally, all our visits include board members of our partners. In other words, our future leaders discuss their future with current leaders.”

Ed Smit, Director and Co-Owner of Jungle Talks.

What role do the supporting horticultural companies play in this Mastercourse?

Ed: “They play a vital role in making the course successful, not just because of their financial support. The main reason is that, by opening their doors on a board of directors’ level and their willingness to discuss the future of the company/subsector they serve, they indirectly contribute to a broader discussion about the sector’s future. If you add up all these discussions in a time span of two weeks, you get a pretty good feel of what lies ahead of us.”

The Mastercourse partners include predominantly tech companies. How does the course address the many other exciting aspects of ornamental horticulture?
Renee: You’re right. Most partners are suppliers of knowledge and technology, but we also include other topics such as marketing, branding and HR management. We do this by inviting inspirational guest speakers, but sometimes our partners also contribute with topics. Klasmann-Deilmann is perhaps a good example. They teamed up with the Maan Group, recipient of the King Willem I Award for the Netherlands’ most innovative and sustainable company. This cross-sectoral collaboration between two leading companies creates disruptive solutions such as a new substrate rolling out of 3D printers.”

Once, you also hosted a Mastercourse for the medicinal cannabis industry. What’s your feeling; did cannabis fuel the growth in sales and profits the hortipreneurs anticipated?

Ed: “Frankly speaking, we were not so eager to step into it, but demand was there from both partners and potential participants. In the end, we liked it because we stepped into a completely different world. Meanwhile, that was exactly the main reason why we did not proceed with doing it. There was just too much to learn for us to be able to provide the same added value as what we provide in ornamentals and vegetables. As a company, we are too small to develop that knowledge. But if somebody out wants to collaborate with us, we are open to suggestions. What has happened in the cannabis industry in recent years was to be expected. It was a big bubble that would burst sooner or later. However, there is a great future for (medicinal) cannabis. Like always, the Cowboys pave the path and lose a lot of money. The early adopters are the ones who profit. I think we are entering that second stage with medicinal cannabis.”

What can you reveal about the Mastercourse Floriculture happening between 15-26 January 2024?

Renee: “In many ways, the upcoming course is a blueprint of previous editions, but the final selection of participants always defines the last details and focus of the programme. Our first post-Covid course took place in June 2022; after a long time, people could travel internationally again, and the need to get together was strongly felt. In January 2023, the course focused on the sector’s so-called ‘contemporary urgencies’: how do we survive the energy crisis? What is my licence to produce? When I take over my parent’s company, how do I make it sustainable and resilient? For 2024, the focus will shift slightly towards your license to produce. Or even more profound, your license to be. Why does your company exist? What do you contribute to this world?”

Since 2022, participants of the Mastercourse are automatically pre-selected for the AIPH’s Young International Grower of the Year Award. Why would you recommend participants to do so?

Ed: “We think the Award ceremony positively boosts young international talent. There are few opportunities for international, young people in floriculture to meet with international peers, interact and exchange knowledge and experiences. We hope that this Award, like the Mastercourse, provides an opportunity to do just that and encourages people not only to feel proud of what they do but also to step up and show the world what value horticulture, their job and their company bring to the society at large by making the world a better place every day again and demonstrating leadership.”

Renee on stage with the class of ’23 for the Young Grower of the Year Award, for AIPH International Grower of the Year 2023.

Life for a young grower in, let’s say, the Netherlands, the USA or Italy can be utterly different from growers in countries with no access to the latest horti technology for various reasons. How to make the Mastercourse even more inclusive?

Renee: “Good question and not an easy one. The Mastercourse is aimed at young, talented professionals that work in floriculture and a controlled environment. That is partly because of the partners we’ve involved in the course and partly to create a level playing field when discussing the sector’s future. We also strongly believe that the Netherlands plays and should continue to play an important role in diffusing its knowledge and technology, making it accessible. We can imagine that more inclusivity can be sought in designing different courses so that horticultural talent in countries without access to the latest horticultural technology can still learn about what’s useful for them. As one of our partners always says, “We talk about smart tech with our clients, what solution is best for them in their particular circumstances.”

Recruiting the new captains of the industry; searching for top talent in horticulture; liaising with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, National Geographic and famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to make them the strong advocates for Dutch greenhouse horticulture. From all this stems a desire to put horticulture on the world map, to give it the place it deserves. Why is that?

Ed: “The world is in flames, and we need to come up with solutions that contribute to the big questions we are facing. We always refer to horticulture as Formula 1 of the Ag World. In other words, new solutions for crop protection, irrigation, fertilisation, AI, and energy are usually developed and implemented in greenhouses before they ‘go outside’. But Formula 1 is also sexy. It attracts people. As a sector, we aren’t sexy yet. Young people still question choosing a horticultural career or do not even consider it. In that respect, we believe in pull instead of push. Let outsiders tell your story. Let them be your ambassadors. Let them help us explain to the world that our sector is sexy.”

What is the next step for Jungle Talks’ Mastercourses?

Renee: “We dream of organising more Mastercourses. Regarding our participants, we now focus on ‘general management or board of director’s level’. We feel there’s much potential to offer more technical courses for greenhouse managers or Mastercourses aimed at branding and marketing. At the same time, we want to invest more time in maintaining the networks of alumni participants. We want to set up annual meetups with participants in different locations around the globe and also see if a continuous exchange of knowledge and experiences, for instance, via a webinar series or maybe just an informal online meet-up is something that people need and value.
On a more personal note, we’re moving back to the Netherlands by the end of the year, so that’s a big move after living abroad for more than 20 years. We also see this as an opportunity to stay updated with the latest in the sector and translate this into even more relevant course programmes in the years to come.”

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