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"Women leadership trio helps Summerfruit sector prosper"

People, diversity, and the opportunity to help those in the industry are among the aspects of their work that Kate Hellstrom, Andrea Crawford, and Tracey Mansfield of Summerfruit NZ most enjoy. The trio, all members of Women in Horticulture, acknowledge the past two years have been particularly hard for growers, but that has fuelled their passion for doing all they can to assist growers to get through.

Kate is the chief executive of Summerfruit NZ, Andrea is the business manager, and Tracey is the labor coordinator. Together with technical advisor Richard Mills, they make up Summerfruit NZ's management team.

Kate, who joined Summerfruit NZ in April 2021, was raised and educated in Wellington. She has a Bachelor of Science (Zoology) from Victoria University and a Masters in Resource and Environmental Planning (gained with Distinction) from Massey University.

Tracey Mansfield (left), Kate Hellstrom, and Andrea Crawford (right) 

Kate was attracted to her current role by the variety it offered. "On any given day, the team will be involved in a wide range of issues including biosecurity, labor, logistics, tech transfer, export, and market access, or governance – the list goes on," Kate says. "This role requires building effective relationships with key stakeholders, government agencies, and Ministers. And most importantly, this role is about people. With the rest of the team, I'm here to help summerfruit growers, packhouses, and exporters to prosper and grow a fantastic product that we are all very proud of." 

Kate says there have been significant challenges in the past few years. "The horticulture industry has remained in a constant state of flux due to ongoing and complex challenges," she says. "We're still in a global pandemic, and we are experiencing a severe labor crisis and very high turnover rates. Global supply chains remain heavily disrupted, and weather events have continued to impact all our growing regions."

In response to those challenges, as well as working hard, the Summerfruit NZ team made quite significant changes to the way it operates. The team downsized its current staff to four while not dropping any functions.

"We now outsource most of our administration, such as finance, along with aspects of our communications," Kate says. "We also rely more heavily on specialist contractors for tasks such as biosecurity and research project management. We have moved from our Wellington office and now work partly at home and partly in shared workspaces – in a modern, paperless, cloud-based way. [We] can easily work remotely wherever we are traveling or happen to be." 

Personal change
Kate says leading Summerfruit NZ through its own changes and during uncertain times has been a positive personal challenge. "Working closely with my very capable team of Andrea, Richard and Tracey have been great," she says. "We support each other in our work, we take time to celebrate our successes, and we check in on each other when needed. 

"Our board members are also very supportive and generous in sharing of their knowledge of the industry and the unique skills and experience they each bring to their role. A big thanks to the team and the board for their invaluable contribution to our sector."

Summerfruit NZ's business manager, Andrea, also grew up in Wellington and has a Bachelor of Commerce and Administration and a major in Marketing and Management from Victoria University.   

Andrea joined Summerfruit NZ on contract in 2018 and became a permanent employee in 2019. "I'd known the Summerfruit NZ team for many years from my time with Horticulture New Zealand and other product groups," Andrea says. "I was keen to experience working with a developing fruit sector group."

Andrea got into the horticulture sector in 2009 by accident when she became a part-time database administrator for HortNZ. "I was looking for a complete change and soon got hooked," she says. "I then moved into roles in HortNZ and vegetable product groups along with a role at the Primary ITO before moving to Summerfruit NZ."

Variety of tasks
Andrea describes her current job as "the ultimate specialist/generalist role – a bit of everything."

"I provide support to the chief executive and the rest of the team in governance, back-office management, and IT support and tend to be involved in engagement with a variety of stakeholders. My role is facilitating support for the other team members and their respective portfolios."

And it's a role she loves. "Where else can you work with such a wide variety of businesses and their various needs for support?" she says. "Our members include small growers, intergenerational businesses, and now the emergence of larger corporates and vertically integrated operations. 

"We can be talking and working with external stakeholders or members on a number of topics and issues every day, which always keeps it interesting and challenging. It becomes personal. You know the people and their families and get to work with them and their teams on a variety of levels."

However, it's not always easy. "The business environment is changing so fast these days," Andrea says. We have to adapt our business models and develop new ways to meet these challenges, or we simply won't survive."

Summerfruit's labor coordinator Tracey, who now lives in Arrowtown, grew up in rural Southland, Otautau. She has a Bachelor of Physical Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, with a Post Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education from Otago University.

Tracey's role at Summerfruit NZ, which also includes some communication work and events coordination, was created in November 2020 in response to the labor crisis caused by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

"Horticulture wasn't on my radar until I moved to Central Otago after spending ten years in London," Tracey says. "A desire to support the local community and being able to offer support to local fruit and wine growers during a tumultuous time was what attracted me to the industry."

Tracey's role involves supporting growers with their labor requirements. 

"Raising the profile of seasonal work to students, backpackers, grey nomads, or anyone of working age is what I do," she says. "The role also includes keeping up to date with changing immigration rules and Covid-19 protocols and building relationships with growers and a large number of stakeholders." 

Diversity and challenges
Tracey too, enjoys the diversity that horticulture brings.

"One day I can be at a university job expo, then next on an orchard in stunning Central Otago," she says. "The variety is fantastic, from a new carbon zero orchard to meeting with fourth generation growers, to large cooperate businesses. Seeing orchards during the different seasons is always a highlight. Nothing beats the beauty of autumn orchards in Central Otago."

Tracey says the sector is not without its challenges though. "Growers have been through an extremely tough time. The biggest challenge is obviously labor for them, and it's my job to support them in finding staff. Creating more people isn't something anyone can do, so the challenge is to find ways to help where possible.

"It is also not nice hearing from growers who are doing it tough, season after season. They all need a bit of a break." Despite the tough times over the past few years, Kate, Andrea, and Tracey strongly recommend horticulture as a career for women to pursue.

"There is so much variety and career choice in the horticulture industry," Kate says. "Everyone is passionate about their work. It's never boring, and there are always new challenges and learning and growth opportunities. I'm very grateful to be a part of this industry."

A good set of practical skills will get prospective horticulture members a long way in the sector too, Andrea says. "In this business, you just need common sense, good communication skills, a hands-on approach, flexibility, and the ability to multitask," she says. "Some problem-solving skills don't hurt either."

"It's a great industry with a lot of variety," Tracey says. "There are amazing opportunities for women, on an orchard or within the wider industry. It's fun, challenging, and always changing, which makes it interesting."

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