NEW LIFE FOR NURSERYMAN
After a varied career an Italian immigrant has returned to what his family has done well for centuries.
When he emigrated from Italy to New Zealand Giuseppe Martelli brought with him two crucial pieces of home – a huge container-load of tunnel houses and a bright orange Fiat Bambina.
“The car was a wedding gift for my parents when they married in 1972. She is my baby, so she had to come,” said the newly-minted citizen.
“The tunnel houses? Well, this is what I know, I grow things.”
And grow things he does, as well as helping others grow things by providing them with healthy, robust young trees.
At two years old, his Taruheru Nursery in Gisborne, is one of just a handful of members of the New Zealand Avocado Nursery Association. The others are Riversun, Gisborne, Lynwood, Whangarei, Opihi, Te Puna, Southern Cross, Tauranga, and Trevelyan, Te Puke. The newly-established Maori initiative Te Kaha Nursery is also a member but, for the short term at least, plans on producing kiwifruit for East Coast growers. Martelli’s nursery is steadily growing its stock of trees, producing mostly Hass on Zutano rootstock, with a smattering of Fuerte, Bacon and Reed, but that's only one branch to its tree. From the 10 tunnel houses on his two-hectare property near the banks of the Taruheru River, he also produces hardy young plants of mostly citrus, but also kiwifruit, pomegranates, and solid quantities of young natives. They serve a snowballing base of both commercial and domestic clients he serves in Gisborne and around the country, but he doesn't want to grow too rapidly.
“In our first year-and-a-half we dispatched about 20,000 plants,”he said.
“This year we've already sent out 50,000 and, if we choose not to expand, we have an ultimate capacity of 100,000. For me, though, it's important to have a life, to have family time, so we're focusing on managing orders so we don't get too big, too fast.”
And he believes that keeping the operation small means it can be nimble, responding quickly to market demand.
“For example, the seedless mandarins have been popular but as the kiwifruit industry continues to recover that will likely become a bigger part of the business as time goes by.”
Martelli's connection to growing goes back a long time –
centuries, in fact – in his home region of Bari, in the hot, dry province of Puglia. One of the biggest growing regions in Italy, Bari is especially well known for its citrus, vegetables, olives and table grapes, all of which he produced for both local markets and export, right down to working his own nursery.
His family has always grown produce on land – complete with a view of a beautiful medieval tower – they have owned from the 1500s. Even though his maternal grandfather was a lawyer he had a passion for growing olives and grape vines.
As a young man, however, Martelli followed in the footsteps of his father, a virologist and plant pathologist, and paternal grandfather, an entomologist, by studying science at university.
“That was until one day I was working in the lab and realised I didn't really enjoy being on the inside looking out,” he said.
“So even though I knew my father would have a heart attack, I went out to work in the world.”
With a background in micropropagation already behind him, the budding businessman tirelessly worked his family land and established a thoroughly modern growing operation.
Then, around the turn of the new millennium – when he was approaching his mid-20s – Martelli travelled with his father to attend a science conference in Australia, where he met a man who would change his life. A distinguished scientist and fellow Italian, the late Dr Roderick Bonfiglioli, was moving to NZ and he invited his new friend to visit him to look at the wine and nursery industries.
“Over in Italy we were already hearing about what was happening in NZ so I was definitely curious,” he said.
“I came over to work at a local nursery for three weeks and ended up staying for three months.”
And, as all good stories go, he'd met a woman.
“I was in love with the country and in love with the girl, but I had a business to run and had to go home.”
It wasn't long before Martelli and Janine Sadlier reconnected and by the end of 2007 they'd decided to move back to NZ. Once he'd made landfall, he worked as a police officer, for the Ministry of Justice, and again as a vineyard manager and nursery supervisor.
“Then one day we were driving to Taruheru Cemetery to pay our respects to a family member and just down the road we saw this piece of land. There was room both to establish a nursery and to build a home with plenty of room for our four kids to run around, so for us it was fantastic.”
After the purchase was finalised there was a time of inaction when Martelli had what he describes as “a bit of a mid-life crisis” as he pondered the way forward.
“Then the spark re-ignited and I thought I needed to get back to what I know . . . growing.”
That decided, he set about bringing over the equipment he needed, and the new nursery was born.
It's hard establishing a life in a new country, but there are things about Bari that Martelli does not miss. Once a pretty, secluded area of the country, he said it has been heavily infiltrated by industry and tourism. And then there's the Mafia, which the Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA) believes has “military control” over certain parts of the region.
“It's like a poison . . . businesses can't work without paying protection money,” he said.
“It's not at all like you see in the movies. The reality is much more harsh.”
That means that he never takes anything for granted.
“I always knew I wanted more for my kids so being here is a dream,” he said.
“It is paradise, and every day we have things to be grateful for.”