Wilson takes the reins in Hawke's Bay

The Orchardist - - Contents - By Sue Grant-Mackie

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.”

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