Erin Atkin­son, of Te Puke, is the first woman to win the Young Grower of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. She talks to The Or­chardist on

A high school field trip to a large green­house oper­a­tion not only in­tro­duced Erin Atkin­son to the ca­reer she loves – but also set her on the path to be­com­ing the first woman to win the New Zealand Young Grower of the Year ti­tle.

The Orchardist - - Contents - By Elaine Fisher

“My sev­enth form agri-hort teacher at Pukekohe High School, Su­san Stokes, en­cour­aged my in­ter­est in hor­ti­cul­ture and it’s largely thanks to her that I went to Massey Univer­sity to study hor­ti­cul­ture,” says Erin, who won the young grower ti­tle from four male en­trants in Au­gust.

Erin, 30-year-old tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor for Apata Group in Te Puke, has a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence in Hor­ti­cul­ture and has spent most of her work­ing life in the hor­ti­cul­ture in­dus­try. She is also the third Apata em­ployee to win the Bay of Plenty Young Grower award. Erin is ex­tremely proud to have been named Young Grower, es­pe­cially as the stan­dard of the other fi­nal­ists

was very high.

“It was an ex­tremely chal­leng­ing com­pe­ti­tion but I've re­ally en­joyed meet­ing the other fi­nal­ists. There was a lot of good na­tured ban­ter be­tween us and I now have four new friends in the in­dus­try. That’s an­other ad­van­tage of tak­ing part, the peo­ple you meet, in­clud­ing from dif­fer­ent

ar­eas of the hor­ti­cul­tural in­dus­try.”

Run­ner-up for Young Grower was Scott Wil­cox of Pukekohe, who is also Young Veg­etable Grower 2017,

and third place went to Ben Geaney of Wai­mate.

The Young Grower of the Year is an an­nual com­pe­ti­tion to de­ter­mine the best young grower in the coun­try and is run by Hor­ti­cul­ture New Zealand and spon­sored by the Hor­ti­cen­tre


The com­pe­ti­tion is now in its 11th year and is part of Hor­ti­cul­ture New Zealand's strat­egy to sup­port the growth and de­vel­op­ment of New Zealand's fu­ture hor­ti­cul­tural lead­ers.

Hor­ti­cul­ture New Zealand chief ex­ec­u­tive, Mike Chap­man, says the aim of the com­pe­ti­tion is to fos­ter ex­cel­lence amongst young grow­ers and fu­ture-proof a $5.6 bil­lion in­dus­try that ex­ports 60% of to­tal pro­duc­tion to 124 coun­tries.

“The young grower com­pe­ti­tion is a great way to nur­ture the in­ter­est and pas­sion of younger gen­er­a­tions as well as show­case the in­dus­try. It's a very re­ward­ing in­dus­try to be in and it is so en­cour­ag­ing to see the depth of young tal­ent demon­strated. We look for­ward to see­ing the ca­reer pro­gres­sion of each of these po­ten­tial in­dus­try lead­ers.”

Erin will now go on to com­pete for a share of $40,000 worth of prizes in the Young Hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. Com­peti­tors in the Young Hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist of the Year are drawn from the win­ners of the coun­try’s six hor­ti­cul­tural com­pe­ti­tions:

Hor­ti­cul­ture New Zealand (fruit and veg­etable sec­tors)

• New Zealand Plant Pro­duc­ers Inc.

• NZ Wine­grow­ers

Amenity Hor­ti­cul­ture sup­ported by NZ Recre­ation As­so­ci­a­tion

• NZ Flower Grow­ers Inc. and Florists of NZ Inc.


Land­scape In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion of NZ (Land­scap­ing NZ)

Dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion, all five fi­nal­ists are re­quired to com­pete in a se­ries of prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenges de­signed to test the skills needed to run a suc­cess­ful ex­port-fo­cused hor­ti­cul­tural busi­ness.

Erin says she did not ex­pect, nor did she re­ceive, any quar­ter in the com­pe­ti­tion. “I ex­pected to com­pete on an equal foot­ing with the other con­tes­tants and be judged on my skills. I work in a male dom­i­nated in­dus­try so I’m used to work­ing along­side men. The im­por­tant thing is be­ing able to do your job and do it well.”

Erin ad­mits she was prob­a­bly slower at the trac­tor driv­ing than the men and not quite as skil­ful at us­ing a nail gun to as­sem­ble a crate as they were.

“How­ever, I did fin­ish the tasks in the time, and thanks to ad­vice from pre­vi­ous BOP (Bay of Plenty) win­ners Craig Ward and Chris Cle­ments, made sure I had the smooth sides of the boards on the in­side of the crate.”

When it came to the speech con­test, Erin had a range of ideas for the topic on how to en­cour­age ev­ery New Zealan­der to be­come in­volved with biose­cu­rity.

“We need to tai­lor the mes­sage about how im­por­tant biose­cu­rity is to this coun­try so every­one understands the po­ten­tial im­pacts. Those in the in­dus­try know how im­por­tant it is to keep un­wanted or­gan­isms out but we need to in­form ur­ban res­i­dents that in­cur­sions will af­fect them too.”

She also ad­vo­cates ap­point­ing biose­cu­rity champions, well known lead­ers from out­side the in­dus­try who would help raise aware­ness of the im­por­tance of keep­ing un­wanted pests and dis­eases out of the coun­try.

Judges looked for in­di­vid­u­als who could make a dif­fer­ence in their sec­tors and in the in­dus­try, go­ing be­yond great skills to also in­clude lead­er­ship, at­ti­tude and per­son­al­ity.

Chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Zealand Ki­wifruit Grow­ers Inc, Nikki John­son, says “I con­grat­u­late Erin and her sup­port­ers on win­ning the Young Grower of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. It’s great news for the ki­wifruit in­dus­try that the win­ner of the BOP final has now gone on to win the na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.”

Erin is also a strong ad­vo­cate for en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to take up ca­reers in hor­ti­cul­ture and she’s grate­ful for the en­cour­age­ment and sup­port she re­ceived, and con­tin­ues to re­ceive, to help fur­ther her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment.

Erin worked high school and univer­sity hol­i­days in a glasshouse oper­a­tion, and when she grad­u­ated at age 21, was em­ployed there full-time, with re­spon­si­bil­ity for 150 staff.

She later headed over­seas work­ing in Eng­land for a company grow­ing mi­cro­greens, leafy veg­eta­bles, toma­toes, cap­sicums and cu­cum­bers. “When I re­turned to New Zealand I grew culi­nary herbs for a while, but knew I didn’t want to be a grower. I wanted to be in­volved in the tech­ni­cal side of the in­dus­try, work­ing with both peo­ple and plants.”

With that in mind Erin de­cided to look to other hor­ti­cul­tural in­dus­tries for a new chal­lenge and, at the same time, re­solved to live in the Bay of Plenty. “So I packed up and moved to Tau­ranga where I knew only two or three peo­ple, and was lucky enough to get a job in the ki­wifruit in­dus­try with Apata Group.”

To­day Erin is based in Te Puke as one of the company’s tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sors, a role which is var­ied and chal­leng­ing.

Her boss and men­tor Dr So­nia White­man, who is gen­eral man­ager of Apata’s or­chard man­age­ment di­vi­sion, Apata GROW, says Erin’s job in­cludes wide-rang­ing roles that are con­stantly chang­ing as the sea­son pro­gresses.

She over­sees de­vel­op­ment and de­liv­ery of Apata’s tech­ni­cal trans­fer pro­gramme, is re­spon­si­ble for on-or­chard com­pli­ance for Apata GROW clients, as well as act­ing as the Te Puke har­vest man­ager and work­ing closely with mem­bers of the Apata team, draw­ing on her con­sid­er­able peo­ple skills and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge.

So­nia is im­mensely proud that Erin is not only the third Apata em­ployee in a row, but also the first woman, to win both the Bay of Plenty and na­tional young grower ti­tles.

“The win is well de­served and I’d at­tribute Erin’s suc­cesses to prepa­ra­tion, per­sis­tence and per­spi­ra­tion.”

Erin says she can’t en­cour­age other young grow­ers enough to en­ter the re­gional con­tests. “The op­por­tu­ni­ties for per­sonal de­vel­op­ment and net­work­ing are amaz­ing.”

Like­wise, Erin strongly en­cour­ages school stu­dents to con­sider hor­ti­cul­ture as a ca­reer. To this end, she has as­sisted the New Zealand Ki­wifruit Grow­ers Inc. in ca­reer ex­pos, talk­ing to stu­dents about the op­por­tu­ni­ties the in­dus­try offers.

“So many young peo­ple think hor­ti­cul­ture is about pick­ing and pack­ing fruit but, while that’s part of it, the ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties are huge.”

Erin says pos­si­ble ca­reers in­clude be­ing a sci­en­tist help­ing breed new plants, op­er­at­ing drones to map or­chards, de­vel­op­ing new on-or­chard and pack­house tech­nol­ogy in­clud­ing robotics, or be­ing in­volved in mar­ket­ing and fi­nance.

Above: The com­peti­tors in this year’s Young Grower of the Year com­pe­ti­tion and left Scott Wil­cox, run­ner-up and Young Veg­etable Grower of the Year.

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