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.
“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.