Former Vegetables New Zealand director Mark O’Connor:

‘Vegetable growers produce fresh, healthy and sustainable produce, yet are undervalued in NZ’

Former Vegetables New Zealand director Mark O’Connor says vegetable growers produce fresh, healthy and sustainable produce, yet growers are very undervalued in New Zealand.

He retired from Vegetables New Zealand late last year after eight years on the board and says growers produce an affordable product, but there’s little financial reward for their effort and he worries about the future for many growers.

In an era where sustainability has become a buzz word that he says should never be used in a meeting, the focus needs to be more on profitability because otherwise businesses are unsustainable.

“If you make your growers profitable as the first part of business, sustainability and compliance will naturally fit into the system. If you’re not profitable, you’re not sustainable.”

Mark is part of a family business, Appleby Fresh, that produces 500,000 units of mainly green vegetables per annum on the Waimea Plains near Nelson. He joined the business after 20 years in the meat industry, initially as a meat inspector at the local meat works, and then redundancy led to a decade in the beef boning room. Looking back, he says it was a wonderful period of his life with the camaraderie and lifestyle that went with the job.

His redundancy payout went into the sharemarket in early 1987 and vapourised at the end of the year when the market crashed. Looking for other ventures to make money, he teamed up with a mate at the meat works to buy a plot in the Marlborough Sounds and farm mussels. Weekdays at the meat works were followed by weekends on the mussel farm with a fair dose of hunting and diving, and today they lease out the 6.6ha mussel farm.

Then in the late 1990s he returned to the family business which was an expanding market garden on land the O’Connors had farmed since the first settlers arrived in Nelson. It has continued to expand, and today the business encompasses 150ha in vegetables around the Waimea Plains, with 110ha owned by the business and the remainder leased.

The bulk of its production is greens and increasingly higher-value crops such as beans and zucchini, while melons, pumpkins and corn make up the balance. At peak times such as the corn season, the business employs up to 120 staff which drops to 60 through winter. A sizeable proportion of staff are former refugees from countries such as Myanmar who have become permanent staff due to their work ethics toward the various roles in a market garden.

Eighty percent of the produce is sold via MG Marketing (of which Mark is a board member) to distribute around the country.

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