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Return of the watermelon

LeaderBrand is busy investing in a domestic watermelon crop to produce a delicious, sustained supply for the local market. Kristine Walsh speaks to LeaderBrand's Gisborne team on the company's renewed interest in the crop and the challenges and opportunities it brings.

There was a time when LeaderBrand general manager of farming, Gordon McPhail, took care of growing the company's watermelons himself – a task he says was all but easy.

LeaderBrand's general manager of farming, Gordon McPhail, says the company's aim is to grow the watermelon market while growing volumes sustainably.

"Watermelons can be a very fickle crop, and if things go wrong, you can lose an entire paddock overnight," Gordon says. "That's why our cropping manager, Andrew Rosso, takes care of that now. It's a matter of playing to your strengths."

Watermelons aren't a new crop for Leaderbrand's Gisborne team. The company grew them until 2019, when they decided to stop growing them while they focused on developing other branches of the business and supporting infrastructures, such as LeaderBrand's new distribution center in Gisborne city and a major covered cropping facility just out of town.

"The watermelons do need a lot of care, attention, and investment, so at the time, we decided to devote our resources to our expanding salad business, as we saw getting this right first as being crucial," Gordon says. "But with the business on track and a renewed focus on our value-added products, we decided the 2021–2022 season was the right time to get back into supplying [watermelons to] our domestic market."

Even though LeaderBrand has a history of growing watermelon, it put testing and development at the center of its market re-entry. "Our aim is not only to grow the best produce but to work hard to ensure consistency of supply," Gordon says. "So, while we did supply the market last season, our main focus was on research and experimentation to ensure we could get a good supply of great product for a sustained period of time."

The team invested in a great deal of background research, including traveling the world to learn grafting and growing techniques that could be developed into their own pioneering methods while avoiding disease.

A renewed focus on the domestic market has helped LeaderBrand hone its approach.

"While we are looking at producing 3000 tonnes a season now, our aim is to grow the market and grow the volume to meet it sustainably," Gordon says. "But we have to earn the right to do that by growing good varieties and handling them well, so consumers get the best possible eating experience, and by offering our customers – the supermarkets – consistency of supply."

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