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Retirement beckons for NZ watercress trailblazers

Nearly two decades ago, Ruapehu couple Carey and Ernie Wenn began looking for a two-year business project. Now in their seventies, the couple are selling their well-established hydroponic watercress operation and planning their retirement.

About 17 km southeast of Taumarunui sits the Wenn’s 1.9-hectare property which is home to their business Awawhiti Cress. Carey says the couple initially planned to spend just two years growing plants commercially, first looking at flowers before deciding on watercress.

“We looked at hydrangeas, begonias … we wanted something easy and popular. We wanted something accessible for everybody and something good for you. We came across watercress, and we thought it would be easy because it grows everywhere. It wasn’t easy!”

They started their hydroponic market gardens with a growing area of a mere ten metres by twelve metres, but now have around a third of a hectare planted. The couple also run a small number of sheep and cattle, along with some chickens. They ensure all waste from the market garden is either used to feed plants, composted, or fed to their animals.

Awawhiti Cress grows one variety of watercress, pūhā, microgreens — wasabi mustard, pea feather, coriander, Rambo radish (purple), broccoli shoots — and about nine different edible flowers.

“When we started growing watercress there were (and still are) very few commercial growers, so we had nobody actually in the industry to share their knowledge and ask for support. Quite a few mistakes were made, and it was certainly very challenging. When Mike and Annette Trent from GreenYard Veges in Southland phoned and asked us, we were happy to jump on board and mentor them and were delighted to read in the NZGrower [August 2023] of their continued success.”

From the beginning, Carey has been enthusiastic about making sure the business has good compliance and accreditation. From its early days, the operation has been certified by NZGAP (Good Agricultural Practice) and MPI (The Ministry for Primary Industries).

“During the Covid-19 outbreak, our legislation certainly held us in good stead. We only lost our microgreens which was quite soul-destroying but even those weren't lost as we gave them to staff who contactlessly delivered them to their neighbours, and the stock ate the rest. We amalgamated our deliveries into two delivery runs and initially sold only boil-up watercress to the supermarkets.”

Carey has faith in the future of the business but says it’s time for a younger pair of hands to take over the reins. There has been international interest in supplying watercress to a company wanting to manufacture it into a powder for health supplements.

“I would love to carry that through to completion, but I need to be 20 years younger,” she says.

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