Anyone visiting a horticultural greenhouse steps into a new biotope, so to speak. A place where peppers, tomatoes, or roses grow up strictly separated from other life forms, which might pose a threat. Frank van der Helm, as the new associate lecturer of Living Plant Production Systems, part of the research group Integral Food and Production Chains, wants to work on stable biodiverse ecosystems for food and flower production. “I want to bring life back into horticulture,” he says.
Horticulture is in turbulent waters. All kinds of international developments make it increasingly difficult for entrepreneurs to maintain their current economic model. Think of increasingly stringent requirements around plant protection products, emissions of nitrogen, phosphate, and CO2, and rising energy prices.
This does not make Frank van der Helm, son of a horticulturalist himself, pessimistic. On the contrary, “The challenges in horticulture offer an excellent opportunity to apply new knowledge and technology. This may involve high-tech applications, such as automation, robotization, and sensor techniques, but also new knowledge about plant resilience, ecosystems, molecular biology, and biochemical technology.”
Towards a system of resilient cultivation
As an associate lecturer, Frank van der Helm wants to restore the disturbed ecological balance in horticulture. “A crop is a lot stronger if you grow it in an ecosystem with a great diversity of living organisms. There are many more organisms that can contribute to the healthy production of the crop than diseases and pests.” This approach is also known as resilient or organic growing.
Strengthen biodiversity and produce profitably
“Organic cultivation or ‘organic’ is still a niche in horticulture at the moment anyway, but very interesting things are happening there,” Van der Helm believes. “By combining that knowledge and expertise with new scientific insights and new technology, I think we can design living cultivation systems as balanced ecosystems. This will create a horticultural sector in which growers strengthen biodiversity and produce profitably. What I also hope is that this will make room again for young entrepreneurs starting up small-scale businesses. After all, working in horticulture is more than a profession, it is a way of life. In this way, I want to bring life back into horticulture twofold.”
Research, education, and information
With research, education, and information, Frank van der Helm hopes to contribute to what he calls the ecologisation of horticulture. “Several research projects are already running within the research group. For example, focusing on the biological quality of soil and the application of circular fertilizers as an alternative to artificial fertilizers. I have co-written a project proposal on nature-inclusive horticulture that I hope will be honored by NWO.”
Training young professionals
Frank van der Helm was a lecturer-researcher at Inholland University of Applied Sciences for eight years and will continue to teach. “It gives me energy. Moreover, education is important to fill the shortage of horticultural college professionals. Young professionals will participate in the transition that horticulture is in. I want to give them as much knowledge and, above all, insight as possible. By participating in our research projects, students gain early experience with the complexity of our horticultural production systems. Later, in professional practice, they can act accordingly.”
With education, Frank van der Helm focuses particularly on business advisers, who have an important role in the course entrepreneurs choose. “If they know the basics of resilient cultivation, they can also advise well on it.”
Combining practical and theoretical knowledge
Research, teaching, and information being so intertwined is the nice thing about working in higher vocational education, Frank van der Helm believes. “We are very close to practice. In college research and education, we work together with companies and researchers as much as possible. I see former students all over the sector as entrepreneurs, as cultivation specialists, or as consultants. I owe a lot to my practical background. The combination of practical and theoretical knowledge makes you really understand what happens in horticultural production.”
An essay by Frank on how he wants to contribute to horticulture can be read here.
Source: InHolland University of Applied Sciences