YOUNG AND POSITIVE
Young horticulturalists have a lot to offer their industry in positively selling its stories and connecting with consumers.
Young people representing the horticultural industry can improve its brand value, according to Bernadine Guilleux, elected to the Horticulture New Zealand board at 36 years old this June.
“Youth have natural energy and enthusiasm,” she said.
“Put people like Young Horticulturalist of the Year contestants more at the forefront.”
Not only were they often more public relations savvy, they could provide inspiration to students in schools, demonstrating the opportunities the industry offered. The stress of urban living coupled with present health trends could make moving to the regions and growing food from the land a cool opportunity for younger people.
“The tech industries in the 1990s weren’t attractive to work in, but look at their image now,” Bernadine said.
She’s the third child of six children of Jim Balle, who is the second of seven brothers making up the well known Pukekohe growing family, Balle Brothers. And she had an early and very hands-on introduction to the industry, with many summer holidays spent on farm and in the pack house helping out.
She didn’t have a concept of how she would fit in to the family business in those early days.
“My passion was economics and I always wanted to live overseas,” she said.
So she combined both, after completing a Bachelor of International Business from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), travelling first to Hungary and then to France where she completed bachelor’s degree in sociology, a Post Graduate Diploma in Management. Specialising in marketing came with a master’s degree in strategic marketing and communication.
She then worked in consumer insight consulting in various sectors across Europe, including car manufacturing, luxury goods and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) retailing. One of her roles was lobbying for car company, Nissan, which was at the time navigating its way through an upsurge in the European Union’s environmental regulation, particularly around engine emissions and recycling.
She met husband, Alex, through a friend who worked with him, and when the time came to start a family the pull was strong to give them a Kiwi-style upbringing.
“New Zealand provides a very creative and positive environment for children to grow up in,” she said.
Then came the opportunity to move when Alex, now a partner with PWC, was able to transfer to the company’s Auckland office, so she actually followed him back home.They now live in Auckland and have three boys;Theo, eight, Jules, six
and Emile, two.
Her talents were soon put to work in the family business, first as accounts manager for the South East Asia region then as marketing manager.
“New Zealanders want to know where their food comes from,” she said.
“Consumers themselves are trying to cut out the middleman so growers need to be available to have the conversations. Health-focused food products are part of a global mega trend and this is bringing fruit and vegetables to the front of consumers’ minds.”
The key to moving vegetables upmarket was direct contact with customers and that’s often through packaging.
“Currently that’s how you tell your story,” she said.
And while there is an opposing trend against the use of too much packaging, especially if it’s not able to be recycled, she believes the present situation can evolve through careful use of plastics and improved technology around materials and waste streams.
“People won’t necessarily look to increase their emotional connection beyond knowing you’re there,” she said.
“But growers will need to be mindful of their practices to ensure they stack up if put up to scrutiny by the consumer.”
She also sees great potential around start-up opportunities for young people in horticulture, putting the tech model on the land to fill niche product markets. In her case, shortly after she returned to NZ, she and her dairy farming sister combined to design and market organic merino and cotton baby wraps and slings.
“The first three months for a baby are like being in-utero,” she said.
“And Merino wool was being produced in NZ so we could have a very positive take on that. We also actively used social media to promote them from the get-go.”
The result was a win for their start-up company, Nestling Limited, which took out the Rural Women New Zealand North Island Enterprising Rural Women Award in 2011. The judges said they were impressed by the women’s use of NZ materials and their commitment to manufacturing onshore, as well as their innovative designs, combining modern fabrics and colours with traditional ways of wrapping and carrying babies.
“Any start-up has its challenges, but it was really exciting,” she said.
The company has since been sold after her sister, Maria-Fe Rohrlach moved to Chile, but the wraps are still available.
Bernadine’s enthusiasm for big picture thinking is what led her to governance and politics. She readily took up the suggestion of her uncle, Dacey Balle, earlier this year to run for the Horticulture NZ board.
“I’m an optimist and I like seeing change,” she said.
While a lot is achieved through evolution, the magic happens with the right timing, she said.
“It’s all about being open and seizing the opportunities as they come.”
In her case she was well aware of how she differed from other board candidates in this year’s election process.
“I have a different skillset and perspective,” she said.
“And I was confident of what I could bring to the table.”
She told growers they should be wary of falling short by contenting themselves with horticulture’s quiet achiever label.
“Shouting from the rooftops is not the solution. Earning true engagement from our key stakeholders, NZ citizens, is what will get us there.
“Every single New Zealander is involved in our industry every time they consume a NZ-grown fruit or vegetable. I want to see us harness this connection and become the achiever that NZ is proud of.”
So far she said everyone she’s met at the HortNZ Conference as well as at grower and board meetings has been very positive. And that sits well with her wider aim whilst sitting on the HortNZ board of lifting the profile of NZ growers with that same positivity.
This is despite some big concerns which lie ahead which she lists as biosecurity threats, retaining the social license to farm and retaining growers’ access to the vital resources of water and land.
“There are environmental pressures but how can we produce fruit and vegetables within the parameters of local and national government policies?”
She believes horticulture always needs to be on the front foot, looking to future opportunities rather than present day detractions.
“We need to connect with consumers and tell them that domestic production of vegetables is vital unless they want to eat imported food,” she said.
“And we have to have the resources to do that for NZ’s population. Quality of life is a focus for many New Zealand consumers and locally produced food is so important for that.”
She believes more publicity of this is required to get the support of the communities surrounding growers’ farms, so they don’t suffer the unfortunate flak dairy farmers have recently received. And she points to the disconnection now seen between milk found in the fridge and its on-farm origins.
“It’s all about educating on the simple fact that to have good, whole foods, you need somewhere to produce them by someone who gets up every morning to do so,” she said.
Industry bodies needed to shift the public’s perception of growers away from profit-making entities as it’s often been in the past, to focusing on the benefit these businesses provide to
the community, she believes.
Retaining the resources required in NZ also needs to be balanced up against the export earnings horticultural production brings into the country.
And when it comes to the effect urban sprawl is having on areas such as Pukekohe she believes infrastructure improvement is crucial.
“The more people you have in one place the more resources they will have access to.”
Building up in urban Auckland rather than out to the fringes of the city is one answer.
“And better public transport is a no-brainer.”
She works from Balle Brothers’ pack house out of Pukekohe, at its East Tamaki branch or remotely from home, and points to the trend in large cities overseas where staff have weekly remote working days so they can alleviate the stress of traffic congestion, and balance the needs of their careers with their own personal endeavours, including having a family.
“It’s a real opportunity for our generation.”