Bumper crop

Meet the friendly faces at this melt­ing-pot mar­ket gar­den


Wood­haven Gar­dens will toast its 40th birth­day next year. There’s plenty to cel­e­brate for John Clarke, founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of this mar­ket gar­den­ing op­er­a­tion just south of Levin in Horowhenua. John had no grow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when he started work­ing the land, yet he’s trans­formed a two-acre veg­etable plot into a suc­cess­ful busi­ness that spans 1000 acres (405 hectares) and em­ploys more than 200 peo­ple.

Wood­haven’s crops in­clude cab­bage, let­tuce, cour­gette, beet­root, pars­ley, pump­kin and spring onion – 16 veg­eta­bles all up, plus wa­ter­mel­ons grown for the New Zealand and in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. Fol­low­ing the ac­qui­si­tion of a broc­coli and cour­gette farm, broc­coli has be­come one of the com­pany’s main crops. The pro­duce is sold through whole­sale mar­kets to supermarkets and shops around the coun­try – you’ve prob­a­bly bought Wood­haven veges be­fore.

A lit­tle over 40 years ago John was a young veg­etable seed sales­man who quickly came to the con­clu­sion that he ought to learn how to sow those seeds. “I re­alised that if I was go­ing to be suc­cess­ful, I needed to know how to grow, so that’s what I tried to do,” he says. “And I never went back to the seed in­dus­try!”

His other mo­ti­va­tion was the de­sire to cre­ate a bet­ter life­style for his fam­ily. John’s mother had mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis and the hills of Welling­ton had be­come un­suit­able for her. Mov­ing to flat­ter land in Levin made sense, as did build­ing a house where John, his then-wife Honora and his par­ents could live to­gether. John, Honora and John’s father, Eric, were able to care for John’s mum while start­ing a small veg­etable-grow­ing busi­ness. Even­tu­ally, John bought his father out, but the fam­ily busi­ness con­tin­ued by way of John and Honora’s chil­dren. They’ve been help­ing out since they were kids and are an in­te­gral part of the Wood­haven team.

John’s daugh­ter, Emma, is Wood­haven’s sales and hu­man re­sources man­ager. She lives in the fam­ily home on the farm (John is now a few hun­dred me­tres away). Emma wasn’t al­ways keen on join­ing the busi­ness. She left the farm to study, but re­turned to help when her par­ents sep­a­rated. One thing led to an­other and she ended up stay­ing on and fin­ish­ing her de­gree ex­tra­mu­rally. Her three kids are lined up to join the fam­ily firm one day, too. Her char­tered ac­coun­tant brother, Jay, is based in Welling­ton but flies in and out, con­sult­ing on spe­cial projects and con­tribut­ing as a com­pany di­rec­tor. Work­ing with his kids is spe­cial, says John. “We’re pretty close, and we’re very pas­sion­ate about the busi­ness.”

John loves the ev­ery­day chal­lenges

(“from weather through to peo­ple”) and the con­nec­tion to na­ture and peo­ple that his job pro­vides. “I love the out­doors, I love the sat­is­fac­tion of grow­ing a crop, and I love the

peo­ple. We have a re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary group of staff that we work with.”

Em­ploy­ees hail from around 20 coun­tries in­clud­ing Samoa, Kiri­bati, Malaysia and Chile. Cul­tural dif­fer­ences are cel­e­brated through­out the year. Each day a dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­ity flies its flag, while cul­tural per­for­mances are com­mon at sports days, Christ­mas con­certs and events such as the Horowhenua Taste Trail.

Many staff have been at Wood­haven for more than 10 years – some more than 20 – and the fam­ily busi­ness model fil­ters down from the top. It’s not un­com­mon for mar­ried cou­ples, sib­lings or two gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily to pick along­side each other.

Chil­dren of cur­rent and past em­ploy­ees are sup­ported through two an­nual ter­tiary schol­ar­ships of­fered by Wood­haven.

Is the com­pany cul­ture the rea­son staff stay so long? “You al­ways like to think that’s why,” John says. “I think it is.” You’d have to like your col­leagues in this line of work. “It’s a tough job,” John says. Es­pe­cially in ex­treme weather con­di­tions. “We don’t stop for the weather.” Pro­duc­tion (post-harvest han­dling, sort­ing, packing etc), is seven days a week. It may be cold, hard work, but it’s sat­is­fy­ing. John still oc­ca­sion­ally works the fields, but his main fo­cus is on sales, man­age­ment and keep­ing an eye on the crops.

The in­dus­try has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the years, from be­ing hands-on to pre­dom­i­nantly mech­a­nised. Har­vest­ing is still done by hand, but pro­duc­tion and ir­ri­ga­tion are now au­to­mated. One con­stant is the team’s com­mit­ment to qual­ity and their aim to grow sus­tain­ably.

John is pas­sion­ate about ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy and sus­tain­abil­ity. Wood­haven’s farm man­age­ment sys­tem, Hor­trac, has won a num­ber of in­no­va­tion awards. “We try and grow the change. We’re look­ing for ad­vances wher­ever we can,” John says. He’s learned by “mak­ing a lot of mis­takes”.

The team prac­tises sus­tain­able land man­age­ment by ro­tat­ing crops so that the soil re­mains fer­tile, and plant­ing ben­e­fi­cial cover crops, which are ploughed back into the earth to en­rich it. Horowhenua’s fer­tile land and tem­per­ate cli­mate have made it an im­por­tant agri­cul­tural re­gion for many years. John and his team are com­mit­ted to hon­our­ing this his­tory, while in­no­vat­ing to en­sure the area’s fu­ture.

Veges in vogue A cab­bage field at Wood­haven Gar­dens, a large mar­ket gar­den op­er­a­tion in Horowhenua. Op­po­site: Har­vest­ing beet­root, one of 16 veg­etable crops grown at Wood­haven.

Ripe for the pick­ing Ev­ery­one chips in for the leek, cour­gette and cab­bage har­vests. Op­po­site, bot­tom left: John Clarke, Wood­haven’s founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, helps pick cour­gettes.

Peo­ple power Linda Lu, Tokar­erei Teu­ruru and Meizhen Wu plant let­tuce while Kate Moru (wear­ing sis­ter Lucy’s apron) packs spring onions. Staff mem­bers’ dif­fer­ent cul­tures are cel­e­brated at Wood­haven through a flag ro­ta­tion sys­tem, per­for­mances and hand­made signs that point to ‘home’.

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