Otago Daily Times
Hard work earned admiration of all
WHEN it came to work ethic, it would be hard to look past legendary North Otago market gardener Reggie Joe.
For more than 45 years, Joe’s Vegie Stall on State Highway 1 at Alma has been a landmark. From humble beginnings as a small roadside stall with an honesty tin, the business expanded to a busy operation, attracting a loyal following of customers.
His wife Suzie acknowledged it was his garden and customers that Mr Joe put first, followed by his family for whom he did it all.
His ambition in life was simple; to create a better future for his four children. Having known hardship firsthand, he was determined they would receive a good education.
Mr Joe died peacefully, surrounded by his family, in Dunedin Hospital on June 8, aged 82.
He was totally committed to the business and, even during recent ill health, loved serving his regular customers who often left with extra free produce — and smiles on their faces.
‘‘Over the years, we’ve employed hundreds of staff. Not one, I could say, would be able to handle what we handled. Even I don’t know how we did it a lot of times but I think it was because we wanted to reach the same goal,’’ Suzie Joe said.
The eldest son of Joe King Nam and Joe Dong Kit, and from a family of eight, Mr Joe was 4 when he, his two older sisters Fay and Joy and their mother moved from Canton, China to New Zealand as war refugees in 1939. His grandfather had arrived in 1866 and his father in 1919.
‘‘The Chinese were so poor — that’s why they ended up travelling to all parts of the world. They were treated badly but they put up with it because it was so much better than it was at home,’’ he told the Otago Daily Times in 2012.
Some New Zealanders could not understand what real poverty was, he said, illustrating his point with the story of a sister who died in China.
‘‘We just didn’t have the money for medicine; we just had to let her go. If only some people in New Zealand today had a little bit of hardship they might look at life a little differently . . . people have no idea how poor people can be.’’
Mr Joe spent his early years in Martinborough, where his parents worked in market gardens and in a fruit shop.
He left at 19 and did a variety of jobs including shearing, working as a linesman, at a milk treatment station, motor vehicle business and the Wellington wharf.
After a couple of years, he moved to Balclutha, to work for his two sisters in their market garden in summer and fruit shop in winter.
Mr Joe moved to North Otago in 1958 and he and his younger brother Martin bought a lease for a fruit shop in Oamaru.
With about 12 other fruit shops in town, it was very competitive. They had to lease land and grow their own vegetables to compete and were selling produce at a loss.
When the Bank of New Zealand took over the premises in 1967, the brothers returned to gardening fulltime.
By this stage, Mr Joe had married Suzie — the couple met at a dance in Wellington — and were married at St Paul’s Church in Oamaru in 1965.
The brothers bought a farm at Boundary Creek and built a large glasshouse that grew 10,000 tomato plants, while growing crops on the adjacent land. Reggie and Martin were the first to grow tomatoes hydroponically in North Otago.
After two seasons, they went their separate ways, with Martin and his family staying on the property.
Reggie and Suzie bought a 4ha property at Alma, where they built glasshouses and opened a small roadside stall in 1972. They also farmed another block with Mr Joe’s sister Fay.
In winter, Mr Joe picked Brussels sprouts four to five days a week, from 9am until
6pm, in all weather.
While raising a family in a small, twobedroom house, Mrs Joe would stay home cleaning Brussels sprouts ready to be dispatched to the market in Wellington on Monday morning. The couple were sometimes trimming sprouts until 2am or 3am.
In 1984, Martin sold the Boundary Creek property and, a year later, Reggie and Suzie’s elder son Steven bought it and the family operated both properties.
By then, they were growing 22,000 tomato plants — producing up to six tonnes of tomatoes a week — as well as running the stall and growing crops to stock it. They often worked 20hour days to manage the workload.
In 1997, they bought the old John M. Fraser auction rooms and turned them into a retail outlet. Family members manned it for 10 years before closing it as the workload got too much.
They also cultivated an enthusiastic following at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin for about 10 months in 2004.
Mr Joe sowed crops continuously, so there was always plenty of variety. Fresh peas were in demand every Christmas and they often picked in the dark to keep up.
‘‘It was always a problem to employ kids to pick them as they would always end up picking flat ones and, one Christmas Eve, we spent an entire night sorting through them to throw out the flat ones,’’ Mrs Joe said.
Mr Joe loved driving and would travel to Blenheim to collect orchardfresh apples, doing the return trip in one day and catching a few hours’ sleep in the cab of the truck. He would sometimes do the same to get cherries for Christmas sales.
Reflecting on his success in business, Mr Joe attributed it to work ethic. ‘‘We started off from scratch; right from nothing. Pure hard work has got us into this position, looking after our customers and growing our own produce.’’
Keeping up with modern equipment also helped. Forklifts had been especially useful — Mr Joe once carried big sacks of produce on his back — and relatively few outgoings meant the business remained viable.
Mrs Joe said her husband was always thinking about work. ‘‘Reggie always said to me, ‘if you can’t run a good business, don’t bother trying’.’’
Until a few years ago, even Christmas Day involved work and he and Mrs Joe only ever took two holidays together.
Bob Sutherland first met Mr Joe in 1959 and the pair became good friends after Mr Joe asked if he would be interested in working for him.
Mr Sutherland spent much of his youth with Martin and Reggie. He remembers planting potatoes by torchlight at 1am after they had been to the movies — and his own three children also worked for Mr Joe.
He described Mr Joe as a very humble man who was also very generous and knowledgeable. He was a very astute businessman and a great person to seek advice from.
Friend and fellow market gardener Peter Armstrong described Mr Joe as one of the most generous men he had ever met.
‘‘He always tried to help the young growers coming through and would always back the underdog, of which I was both. No matter how busy he was, he always had time for people.
‘‘I guess, over the last 25 years, Reg has been a bit like a father figure to me — always there, through thick and thin, a great guy in the good times and an even better one in the bad.
‘‘He always seemed such a levelheaded guy, with a wealth of knowledge and he was always prepared to share that knowledge when approached for help.
‘‘Reg was a ‘people person’ and his friendly, welcoming smile will be missed by many — regardless of whether he had his teeth in or not.’’
Mr Joe cherished his children and particularly enjoyed in latter times, after Steven joined the business, spending time with younger daughter Melinda, a talented performing artist.
He overcame his fear of flying to attend the national tap dancing awards in Wellington in 1998 to proudly watch her perform.
In 2012, he surprised her by flying to Auckland to watch her final performance as the lead in Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Centre Stage Theatre in Orewa.
In April, Melinda played Cynthia in the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, staged by Showbiz Christchurch.
Sadly, Mr Joe and Steven did not get to see it, as they stayed at home to work, allowing Suzie to attend with elder daughter Karen and grandson Tarras.
Mr Joe’s interests were varied and he loved ‘‘anything and everything’’ — from nature and politics to science and sport.
A daily ritual was reading the Otago Daily Times ‘‘front to back’’. He enjoyed creating meals for his family and he also loved music.
He enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, two of whom, Ashleigh and Tarras, worked weekends and school holidays in the shop, often staying for an evening meal prepared by their grandfather.
Zane, a keen sportsman, enjoyed watching sport on television with his grandfather, while Mr Joe often viewed youngest granddaughter
Misaki’s iceskating performances on video, as he could not travel to watch her in person.
Steven Joe, who worked alongside his father, described Mr Joe as having great knowledge and passion. He had been a mentor, teacher and best friend.
Mrs Joe said her husband had a great sense of humour and never got ruffled about anything. He had a ‘‘magical’’ ability to make people feel good and he would always do his best to help others.
That generosity was acknowledged at his funeral service when those attending were invited to help themselves to fresh produce from his garden, at the front of the church, in return for a donation to St John.
Bruce Albiston, a customer for more than 30 years, said his admiration for the family’s longterm investment in the community had grown with the years.
‘‘They have provided a model of family enterprise, a work ethic that maximised the wonderful resources of the Totara soils, and a customer service that ensured we locals benefited most from the produce that they harvested.’’
Mr Joe had been part of the backbone of North Otago and his business was ‘‘a State Highway 1 icon’’ that had elevated the district’s recognition internationally for its horticulture and produce.
Mr Joe is survived by his wife Suzie, children Steven, Graeme, Karen and Melinda, and grandchildren Ashleigh, Tarras, Zane and Misaki. — Sally Rae