Southern man a voice for the small guys
As a young, small-scale, independent Christchurch tomato grower, Jonathan Baker is well aware he represents a shrinking minority.
Young, small-scale independent grower joins the board.
Newly elected as a director on Tomatoes NZ Inc., Jonathan, aged 36, says he provides a voice for smaller growers and representation from the South Island in an industry increasingly dominated by big northern-based corporate operations.
While smaller growers are struggling, bigger operators have the scale to more easily deal with compliance and invest in capital expenditure and new technology such as robotics, he says.
Jonathan and his wife Michelle are relatively new to commercial tomato growing, buying an existing 2400m2 plastic tunnelhouse tomato growing operation three years ago at Allandale, at the head of Lyttelton Harbour.
He previously worked in manufacturing and still does some work in this area, mainly in the supply chain. “I started with a degree in fine arts at Canterbury University. I’ve gone from fine arts to manufacturing and engineering and ended up in horticulture.”
Born in South Africa, he went to primary school in Capetown before his family immigrated to Christchurch. “My parents didn’t see any opportunities for me and my sister in South Africa and there was also the danger thing. We were here about a month when we heard a friend in South Africa had been shot and killed. We were 10 minutes’ drive from Pollsmoor Prison where Nelson Mandela spent some of his 27 years in jail.
“I finished fine arts and wanted to get into landscaping, but to gain employment I took on project manager and operations roles in manufacturing. I found it interesting, but never felt that driven. I always wanted to get my hands dirty and have a land-based job.”
As a vegetarian, Jonathan was never interested in livestock farming. “So I spent about a year looking, as I also wanted to run my own business.
“It’s been a hell of an adventure. It’s one thing growing something in the vegetable garden, but growing commercially is a different ball game altogether.”
In the early stages of the business, named Little Greenhouse Ltd, he was able to draw on the experience of existing staff, suppliers and buyers, with a consultant coming once a month with advice.
The whole plot, including another nearby glasshouse operation, was originally owned by the Turner family, with Trevor and his cousin Bruce running the two businesses. The family has now sold both. The properties have a history of growing both fruit and vegetables. “This all used to be orchard, and apricots still grow outside our house window.”
As well as supplying wholesalers, Jonathan has also found his own markets, supplying greengrocers and farmers’ markets, “but it’s not getting any easier”.
“I have enjoyed the last three years and have no regrets.”
Little Greenhouse Ltd grows three different varieties of cherry tomatoes for wholesale, as well as large loose tomatoes for farmers’ markets.
“You can’t grow too many varieties in one environment so our main crop is cherry tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes produce fewer kilograms a year and are more labour intensive, but are a more valuable crop and the overheads are the same.”
Jonathan said the size of the operation meant it was too big to completely supply farmers’ markets, but too small
to only supply wholesalers. “So at the moment we have a foot in both camps. It is a strategy we have adopted this year for the first time and it gives us some flexibility.”
The Bakers supply three Christchurch farmers’ markets at Lyttelton, Opawa and Ohoka. “If we could pick up a fourth then we could sell half of our produce through farmers’ markets.
“In manufacturing, you calculate the cost of a job and quote a price for what you can do it for. Horticulture is completely different as growers are price takers and it is something I am still getting my head around. A lot of the time we can sell cheaper at farmers’ markets than supermarkets and still make money.”
Since entering horticulture, he has met and talked to as many people in the industry as possible. In particular, he cites former Tomatoes NZ director and Central Canterbury glasshouse grower Tony Norton, who has retired. “He was certainly a big encouragement, taking me along to Hort NZ and Horticulture Canterbury Growers’ Society events.”
Jonathan was nominated for the board by Kakanui (North Otago) tomato growers Grant and Deborah Callum. “I try and keep in touch with as many growers as possible, particularly in the South Island.”
With a shrinking grower base, Jonathan questions why Tomatoes NZ is separate and not part of a wider covered crops group incorporating other indoor crops such as capsicums, chilli, cucumber and lettuce.
Little Greenhouse Ltd pulls out its crop in February and replants in March. “This is because domestic gardeners and organic growers have a surplus at that time and prices are low. It is harder growing as you are growing into low light and higher humidity in winter. If you consider growing from a strictly horticultural point of view you would plant in June.
“Every week we are selling out of large loose tomatoes, even in April, so next year we will grow more.” As these are being grown at glasshouse settings to suit cherry tomatoes, yields are below optimum. Farmers’ markets encourage growers to produce a more diverse range of varieties, but Jonathan is limiting this. “I wouldn’t find that very satisfying from a grower point of view as then you are not able to grow tomatoes to their optimum as you are having to compromise.”
Jonathan said he would have liked to have taken part in the Young Grower of the Year competition to see how well he fared, but by the time he entered horticulture he was too old to compete.
Cherry tomatoes are Jonathan Baker’s main crop.