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NZ tomato industry sees growth potential in greenhouse vegetable growing

The New Zealand market is an interesting one. Ever since the nineties the production of fresh tomatoes has shifted indoors and the market is quite isolated. This provides opportunities since the local market is strong, yet also challenges, for example in labor. In October, TomatoesNZ formulated its new strategy for the next 3-5 years, with a view to "building a resilient, sustainable and profitable New Zealand tomato industry." Barry O'Neil, chair of TomatoesNZ, sees a number of challenges and opportunities in the country's tomato sector. Together with Helen Barnes, general manager of TomatoesNZ, he updates us on the market.

Stable production
In recent years, the fresh tomato production area in New Zealand has remained stable, with some consolidation of ownership. "New Zealand’s fresh tomato production made the transition from outdoor to glasshouses in the 1990’s", Barry explains. "Almost all of the fresh tomatoes consumed in New Zealand are indoor grown. Most of our production (about 90%) is consumed domestically."

Environmental factors
With climate change, Barry sees even more growth potential in the production of vegetables in greenhouses, "where environmental impacts can also be more closely monitored and controlled."

These environmental impacts are among the challenges that New Zealand growers are facing: from energy, moving to renewables away from fossil fuels, to biological based pest controls, avoiding use of chemical controls.

They also have to deal with strict environmental rules. The government set targets for achieving carbon neutrality, and glasshouse vegetable production is included in New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), meaning growers pay for CO2 emissions. "Growers are also GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) accredited, and at the moment we are developing a GAP Farm Environment plan checklist for greenhouse vegetable growers to meet new regulatory requirements."

Another big issue in the greenhouse industry worldwide is labor, and New Zealand is no exception to this.

"Labor is a huge issue for our growers, both availability and affordability", Barry confirms. "Our government has been increasing the minimum wage as one of the ways to address inequality, and pre-COVID we had historic low levels of unemployment anyway.

"With the border effectively closed, the labor market has become even more difficult as we don’t have access to seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands or working backpackers, so it's hard to get good workers. So that's one of the drivers for increasing our efforts to introduce automation."

Market trends
COVID-19 hasn't just left its mark on the labor market, it has also impacted export trade, with reduced demand in hospitality and airfreight costs significantly increased, with few carriers still coming to New Zealand.

However, Barry sees a bright future for New Zealand's tomatoes, which come in a wide range of types: from large round to cocktail and many types of cherries and, as in many other countires, with a few growers producing some other colours and heirloom varieties. "The future is very positive, as we are already well on the journey to sustainable growing systems, something our consumers are wanting to see happen, and New Zealand is well placed compared to other countries with renewable energy options. We are working with our government regarding transitioning to renewables, and how we can encourage and support growers in this regard. Technology advances in glasshouses will continue to drive increased productivity, including introduction of more automation."

With its new strategy in place, TomatoesNZ is looking to be more focused in how they support growers. And those growers can be proud of what they do, Barry says: "Providing consumers with fantastic tasting tomatoes in a sustainable way, all year round."

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