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.

NZ Grower - - Contents - By Heather Chalmers

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.