Farewell to a persimmon pioneer
Lindsay Wells’ death in early August has left a massive chasm in the persimmon world and amongst his family and friends.
The Northland orchardist was the grandfather of New Zealand’s persimmon industry and largely responsible for establishing and fine tuning current growing and postharvest procedures, export standards and overall industry compliance benchmarks. And he was mentor to many as he had a huge capacity and generously shared what he knew with anyone keen to put the effort in.
Horticulture was always a big part of what formed and fuelled Lindsay’s life. He first trained as a science technician for the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Rotorua, then moved north to become branch manager and soil erosion specialist for the then Whangarei Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). By 1979 Lindsay was ready to stretch his entrepreneurial wings so ran his own plant nursery for a couple of years before he and his wife Terrie bought their property, Valley View Orchard, just north of Whangarei.
They planted their first persimmons in 1981 and packed for export in their own small Ministry of Agriculture-approved packhouse on the property. They grew tamarillos and nashi as cash crops over the next decade, and later Yen Ben lemons, but persimmons were always front and centre and currently stand at 16 canopy hectares.
While persimmons were Lindsay and Terrie’s passion, family was their foundation. Their daughter Bronwyn and son Duane
“Dad’s adaptability was probably a big part of his resilience.”
grew up working on the orchard, then after they left home, watched from a distance as the home property grew and the industry evolved. Both of them returned home 16 years ago to be part of the family business.
“Our family has always been really tight and supportive of each other,” Bronwyn said.
“Dad was hugely encouraging for us to go for whatever we wanted, so we knew there was an opportunity here but no pressure to be part of it. The business had grown to the point where it was time to spread the load a bit, and both Duane and I could bring different skills and the next-generation perspective. We’d been away doing own things for 10 years.”
Duane said that in 2008, under his father’s guidance, they continued to increase their production on the home property as well as upgrading to new, larger packing premises, NTL, in Maungatapere on the other side of Whangarei.
“Now we grade and pack avocados for export and domestic markets all year round, and persimmons in May and June. Bronwyn manages all of the production and on-orchard staffing side of the business while I look after the post-harvest, packhouse and marketing side of things.”
And Lindsay has always overseen the whole project.
“He had a way of being right there and available, but still leaving us enough space to grow into our roles in our way,” Duane said.
“He was a powerful presence and he had strong opinions, but he also listened and was adaptable when change was needed.”
And change was often required as to survive in primary industry growers hve to have the flexibility to dance through the vagaries of weather, labour, prices, pests and markets.
“Dad’s adaptability was probably a big part of his resilience,” Bronwyn said.
“For 35 years he survived and ultimately thrived in the ever-changing world of growing, packing and marketing persimmons. He was a planner, but if something went wrong he would go straight to look at what we needed to do to fix it. He would research, ask questions, listen, take advice (though he often wouldn’t admit to that!), then try things, and go with what worked.”
Bronwyn said her father was forever the ‘mad’ scientist – but very grounded with it.
“He was always looking for better ways to do things,” she said.
“He was an inventor of both gadgets and processes. Unique picking trolleys that have enabled us to reach up 3.6 metres, were his invention, and he converted his golf trundler to a pallet strapping cart.”
Lindsay’s interest in innovation ranged from research into coolstore processes, to hot water disinfestation trials, and to a reflective mulch-holding solution. And his search for solutions meant he created industry systems and processes to best support persimmon growing, post-harvest and export. He was a key founder of the persimmon industry body in the early 1980s and was a member and chair from then until 2010.
His interests and capabilities extended to both horticulture industry input and training. He was a work place assessor for the Horticulture Industry Training Organisation (HITO) and was member and chair of the Northland Horticulture Forum from 2007 to 2016. Within that time he was also tutor and horticultural programme developer for RuralTec near Whangarei for three years.
Some of Lindsay’s forward thinking was acknowledged when the family business won an award in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2008. This led to him getting involved with that organisation from 2009 to 2013 and becoming a judge of the supreme award.
With NTL’s move into avocado packing, Lindsay became a member and chair of the NZ Avocado Packers Forum, and he retained that role until a couple of years ago. Duane – “Dad was still serving as the HortNZ representative on the Horticultural Export Authority (HEA), and he was still very involved with both the Northland and National Rural Support Trust (RST). He did a huge amount – and most of that work was voluntary.”
While Lindsay Wells will be remembered for his immense knowledge and contribution to persimmons, horticulture, and in the local community, he will also be remembered for his warmth and generosity. Duane – “He mentored Bron and me. He really listened to us (and plenty of others) as we worked through the trivial things like whether to have milk in coffee, through to whether to invest in another project. He was always there for us.”
Bronwyn – “He taught us compassion and he was hugely empathetic and supportive. He taught us to always strive for what we want and to persevere. He taught me how to speak my mind without losing my dignity. He was a powerful man but he would encourage us to confront and challenge him. He’d find out what drove us. He coached us not to settle for ordinary – so we haven’t.”
One of Lindsay’s recent industry projects has been preparing the way for persimmon export into the Chinese market, which is just now coming to fruition. And on the NTL business front
he has been developing value-added persimmon products including shelf-stable pulp, and persimmon-based non-dairy ice-cream. “We’re due to launch Dad’s My Goodness ice-cream later in October, so already his legacy lives on,” Duane said.
“Until I came home to work here I didn’t realise how capable Dad was as a businessman. I always respected his horticultural knowledge, but he was also very savvy in business. The evidence of that is what we’re standing in.”
Four generations all live on the Wells’ home persimmon block. Lindsay’s 98-year -old father lives in a flat in Terrie and Lindsay’s house, while Duane and his family, and Bronwyn and her family have separate houses on the property. Terrie is still actively involved in the post-harvest and admin side of the business. Bronwyn and her husband, Lance Walters, are running different aspects of the orchard production.
“And just recently, my wife, Sarah, has come into the business to help with promotion, sales and marketing, and to work with Mum in keeping up with our avocado suppliers,” said Duane.
“The wonder of it is that we’ve managed to all still like and respect each other, and we want to work together. That’s mostly credit to Dad. He created an environment where there was enough allowing, enough challenge, enough support, and enough love to let us all develop – including our kids.
“Having the whole family here and involved in the business has always been Dad’s dream. It’s a big part of what he was creating all of this for – even though he didn’t say it as such. He prepared and trained us to step up and out beyond where he could go on his own, and things are still expanding. “The success of this place made him proud and he was especially happy in the last month of his life. He’s been frustrated with some health issues he had in recent years but he and Mum had a trip to Wales for a family wedding a couple of months ago.
“Since their return, he’s has been back to the Dad we always knew. He had his wittiness and charisma back. He was happy, proud, more physically able, determined as ever and very satisfied with the progression of family and business.”
On reflection, both Duane and Bronwyn remember a conversation they’d had with Lindsay the week before he died.
“We’d been having our regular management meeting in which we were discussing the use of chemical or manual weed management,” Bronwyn said.
“Our philosophy was to move away from glyphosate. Dad had researched a new product and presented his findings. Normally he was powerful in how he expressed his opinions but that day his words still reverberate through me. He said; ‘That’s my opinion, but I will support you in whatever direction you take.’
“It was like he had seen and put in place all he that he needed to and he now had total trust in us to take things forward from here.”
“So that’s what we’re doing,” Duane said.
Clockwise from top left: Lindsay Wells makes himself useful on the grading table. Duane, Terrie and Lindsay Wells in the NTL packhouse. Bronwyn Walters at home on the Wellsʼ orchard.
Terrie and Lindsay Wells. Photo courtesy of the Wells family
Four generations of the Wells family live on the orchard.Left to right; Duane Wells, Sarah Wells, Myles Wells, Harry Wells, Knocker Wells (in cardigan), Lindsay Wells, Kobe Walters, Benson Walters, Hannah Walters, Terrie Wells, Lance Walters and Bronwyn Walters.