Top of the south growers triumph in horticulture awards

Meryn Whitehead, a 28-year-old supervisor at Vailima Orchards, has won the national title of Young Grower of the Year.


Meryn Whitehead, a 28-year-old supervisor at Vailima Orchards, has won the national title of Young Grower of the Year.

Top of the south growers have hit the horticulture awards jackpot, with Meryn Whitehead winning the Young Grower of the Year, and Miriana Stephens coming away with Horticulture New Zealand’s President’s Trophy.

Whitehead beat five other contestants in the competition, in which growers were put to the test on a range of skills, from soils to spreadsheets.

“It was unexpected, [it was a] tough competition, but I’m quite proud,” Whitehead said.

The national competition was geared towards the business side of horticulture – the calculations and Excel spreadsheets used in allocating finances and wages, and health and safety issues: making sure everyone was safe at work, Whitehead said.

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Whitehead, 28, is a supervisor at Vailima Orchards, which grows several varieties of apples, some of which end up in the local Pak ‘n Save, while others are sent out across the globe.

The competition also had tasks related to soil testing; “things we have to worry about when we want to grow that perfect, perfect apple if we’re to start at the bottom”.

Whitehead’s background was in Zoology, doing a degree in the subject at university in the United Kingdom.

She was looking to do practical work in the outdoors that she could take traveling with her. After arriving in New Zealand eight years ago, she “stumbled” into horticulture while doing seasonal work.

“I thought I’d get a job sort of just pruning as it were, and they never got rid of me. They can’t get rid of me, I love it too much. It just sort of hit all the things I was looking for in a career.”

Horticulture New Zealand President's Trophy winner Miriana Stephens, right, with HortNZ president Barry O'Neil.


Horticulture New Zealand President’s Trophy winner Miriana Stephens, right, with HortNZ president Barry O’Neil.

In terms of global warming, Whitehead said growers were going to have a lot of challenges, but New Zealand was in the lead with new growing techniques.

“We’re doing everything we can now to play a part in preventing it and then facing the challenges we deal with,” she said.

While the orchard had been “quite lucky” in terms of August’s atmospheric rain event, they were aware of supporting staff members who had been affected.

Whitehead said growing apples well involved a lot of research. “You can’t sort of just wing it.”

“But I would say for anyone who enjoys doing it, just as a hobby, look into it as a career. It’s a great industry to be a part of.”

Nelson grew some great apples, she said, thanks to the soil and the conditions.

Kate Marshall offers some tips and tricks on how to prune apple, pear and cherry trees.

“It’s great for people, but it’s also great for apples. It’s sort of a magical area for that, I think.”

The region had another win in Miriana Stephens taking out the Horticulture New Zealand President’s Trophy. Stephens is a director at the Wakatū Incorporation.

The trophy recognizes people with a passion for working on behalf of the horticulture industry, as well as a commitment to developing as a business leader and successful grower.

Wakatū Incorporation grows apples, kiwifruit and pears in its Motueka orchards under the Kono business.

“To Miriana, business is not just commercial – it involves being a kaitiaki of the whenua and moana, as well as being commercially responsible,” said HortNZ president Barry O’Neil.

Stephens comes from a family of growers who are involved in land trusts that own and manage an extensive collection of businesses.

She is also involved in several governance groups and was a founding member of the Primary Sector Council. In 2016, Stephens was awarded the Aotearoa New Zealand Māori Woman Business Leader award.

Stephens said she loved the horticulture sector as well as Aotearoa, but it was tough out there at the moment.

“That is why we must work together as a sector to realize our potential,” she said.

“I look forward to the future and what we can achieve together, despite our challenges.”

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