Wilson takes the reins in Hawke's Bay
That was pipfruit grower Ricks Crasborn in September 2013, decrying the Hawke's Bay Regional Council for turning off the tap to orchardists during a drought.
And indeed there was change. Orchardists slammed the table and then there were four new regional councillors, who could see things their way.
The point of this story is to underline the political smarts of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association (HBFA) and its new president, Lesley Wilson.
Distressed at watching their apple trees die, the growers got angry, and got even. At that time Lesley was hard at work in the background. The former journalist knew a thing or two about adept public relations: “Our campaign got the message
“We employ 800 people that rely on those trees. We cannot go through another season like this. We need to see change.”
out to the public, the local people, and not just orchardists. We used simple slogans like “no water, no jobs”.
The Growers' Action Group (GAG) began with a few phone calls and a meeting.
“We knew we could do this. We needed to get the message out to the public that our trees were dying.”
There was a tractor protest through the streets, but probably the knock-out punch against the council was GAG's consistent message that some councillors were out of touch with the needs of a crucial local industry. Things would get heated, including terse phone calls to the Orchardist magazine from one councillor who took exception to GAG's activities.
Not long after, the local body elections saw four new regional councillors on board. Lesley and her fellow growers had achieved what they had set out to do.
Needless to say, the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association is excellent at sending strong messages to the council, land use being another concern for growers. Through submissions on plan changes, the Association has made a firm point that good growing land needs to be out of bounds for housing. “There is plenty of other land available for that.” Lesley refers to the issue as “urban creep”, though another horticulture expert disagrees: “It's urban stampede,” he told the Orchardist.
Lesley was elected to the HBFA presidency this year after Leon Stallard stood down. He has been elected to the board of Horticulture New Zealand. At first, Lesley was a reluctant candidate, because the job would mean stepping back from writing about horticulture, to avoid conflicts of interest. However, she felt that after years working behind the scenes for growers, it was time she stepped up. One of her first acts will be to launch a strategic review of the HBFA. “We need to make sure what we are doing is still relevant, that we are doing what the industry requires.”
The strength of the HBFA rests not only with its active executive and the backing of local growers, but also its strong and secure financial foundation. This allows the Association to employ a full-time executive officer.
The new president's achievements “in the background” are impressive. She was project manager of the Australian Apples Access group that successfully lobbied the New Zealand
government to take Australia to the WTO (World Trade Organization) to gain meaningful access for New Zealand apples. She agrees it's disappointing that the Aussies continue to make it incredibly difficult to get fruit there. Pipfruit New Zealand continues to work on achieving meaningful access.
As former event manager of the original ICE (Innovation Celebration and Education) Expo in Hawke's Bay, Lesley is pleased to note that it has become even bigger: The National Horticulture Field Days have developed out of the ICE Expo as the horticulture industry's answer to the National Fieldays which are more focused on pastoral farming. As well as stints as executive officer of Olives New Zealand and the New Zealand Truffles Association, Lesley has been a co-ordinator of LandWISE, promoting sustainable crop production through technology and leadership. Her roles with the HBFA include chairperson of the Pipfruit sector and vicechairperson of the Hawke's Bay Labour Governance Group (which took a leading role in developing the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme).
It would fair to say then, that horticulture is in Lesley Wilson's blood. She grew up in Hawke's Bay and worked on orchards during the summer holidays while she studied for her science degree at Auckland University. She and husband Des have been orcharding in Puketapu for 27 years. In 1987 they purchased 12ha of summerfruit which they converted to apples, and recently bought another 12ha of apples that they had been leasing for nine years. The conversion to apples was because that's where Des's interest lay. Their varieties include Royal Gala, New Zealand Beauty, New Zealand Rose, New Zealand Queen, and Braeburn. The Wilsons are also shareholders in the Mt Erin Packhouse.
Nationally, growers face much the same issues as those in Hawke's Bay, Lesley says. These include biosecurity. Lesley takes a cautious approach to Government Industry Agreements (GIA), saying she would not like to see the whole responsibility for biosecurity placed on growers. There is the potential for that to happen through GIA, she says. She would like to see increased attention paid to container inspections at the border. “I don't want to see our industry ruined through lack of surveillance.” She's not as worried about Queensland fruit fly as she is about the brown marmorated stink bug.
“There is total lock-down on the fruit fly, I think that's taken care of, we have developed great systems and processes. But years of innovation and hard work would be destroyed if that [stink bug] got out the window.” She adds that local district plans should allow for growers “to take appropriate action” in the case of an incursion.
With her experience as a political activist for orchardists, Lesley Wilson has transitioned into the top job smoothly. And she is clear about what that job is:
“Horticulture is a major economic player in the Hawke's Bay, and one of my roles is to make sure people know that.”
“Horticulture is a major economic player in the Hawke’s Bay, and one of my roles is to make sure people know that.”