2023 Leadership Summit


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It was like leaping head first into a bowl of fresh cut salad. The cohort of past regional supreme winners had their senses assailed during a behind-the-scenes look in the packing sheds of horticultural growers Woodhaven Gardens. They walked into the fresh, clean, colourful and full-of-life scents of radishes, spring onion, coriander and a myriad of other vegetables picked fresh and being readied for distribution around the country.

Eric Clarke and his son John established Woodhaven Gardens as a commercial growing operation near Levin in 1978. John’s son Jay and daughter Emma joined the operation several years ago, and the family were named the Horizons Regional Supreme Winners in 2020.

As part of the 2023 Leadership Summit, visiting alumni enjoyed an open day on the farm during which Jay shared the philosophies that have underpinned Woodhaven’s success. Key to this is making sure Woodhaven Gardens is sustainable by minimising their impact on the environment and socially responsibly by taking good care of their workers while growing simply good vegetables.

The alumni were amazed at the efficient pace of how everything moved through the processing systems. Woodhaven Gardens annually sells just over 27 million individual vegetable units which is between 7 and 10% of the national supply, contributing between $30–35 million to the country’s annual GDP. They grow 27 different crops and have a staff of between 210 and 250 people, all of whom are treated as part of a large family.

Knives flashed as leaves and roots disappeared off fennel bulbs, spinach circled around on a conveyer belt, radishes were sprayed with water, coriander was bunched, and bok choy was washed and bagged. Recyclable plastic crates have replaced cardboard boxes, which get parked in shed with the temperature at two degrees Celsius in preparation for their distribution around the country. Depending on which company has purchased the product, the vegetables could be spending the next five days in transit. They need to be well chilled before they head off.

The company’s whole fleet of vehicles is equipped with GPS units so the team knows exactly where their inputs go, and exactly where the fertilizer goes. A soil testing regime using a quick N test allows the Clarkes to understand the exact requirements of the crop and how much nitrogen is in the soil so they can apply exactly the right amount, at the right time, in the right place.

After a tour of the facilities, the visitors were treated to a feast of fresh veggies straight from the fields, melt-in-your mouth potatoes and delicious sausages.

Judging by the number of questions that followed Jay’s presentation, the alumni and ambassadors were fascinated by how the Clarkes have turned their Horowhenua horticulture business into one of the country’s leading commercial growing operations.

A meet and greet followed that evening at Southern Cross restaurant in Wellington, with a Q&A with Al Brown, one of New Zealand’s leading chefs and restauranteurs.

Al told the assembled alumni, ambassadors and regional winners that he had hunted, gathered, and fished, but had never grown food himself. It’s a gap in his culinary resume that he’s busy fixing. He recently bought a property up north and is putting in raised veggie beds. He bemoaned the loss of his brassicas to white butterfly, much to Jay Clarke’s amusement, who was heard to say, “I feel your pain.”

Al recently organised a mammoth coordinated dinner called Cooking Up a Storm to raise money for the Cyclone Gabrielle recovery. He received a rapturous round of applause after announcing the dinners, which were held around the country on one night, had raised $370,000 for the recovery.

The alumni spent the next day in workshops, where they had panel discussions with a team from the Ministry of Primary Industries and shared their experiences since being named Ballance Farm Environment Awards regional supreme winners, before attending the National Sustainability Showcase that evening.

It was a busy and enjoyable few days of connection, conversation, and knowledge sharing.

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