East Coast Winners

Hastings orchardists Graham and Marian Hirst

East Coast BFEA Supreme Winners

Graham and Marian Hirst

EAST COAST SUPREME WINNERS

Hastings orchardists Graham and Marian Hirst are the Supreme winners of the 2016 East Coast Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA).

The award judges summarised Graham and Marian as “a hard working couple using their individual strengths to create a strong team that balances innovation with production strengths.”

Export apples account for 90 percent of the business currently but their newer Bay Blueberries entity is flourishing, producing fresh export, fresh and frozen berries and artisan blueberry products.

Graham and Marian have grown their business from an 11ha bare block they purchased and planted in 1989 with just 1.5ha of apples, “it was all we could afford to plant at the time”, to a successful multifaceted operation with 32ha of apples, 2.5ha of blueberries, a permanent full-time team of seven (including themselves), two permanent part-timers and a seasonal team of over 100 people including their student sons William (20) and Jack (18). The team has people from a range of cultures.

The judges believed Graham and Marian had a “personal factor through the roof” and “a stunning social conscience” and noted the Hirsts had grown their business while at the same time retaining a family unit in a corporate world. The judges described them as a brilliant couple making a difference in the horticulture industry while focusing on the basics of sound management, social responsibility and the environment.

Persistence, passion and integrity are obvious attributes when speaking with the Hirsts. They have ridden out the deregulation of New Zealand’s apple industry and the storm of industry change in pipfruit worldwide, low equity, hailstorms, high interest rates and the time-poor experience of both needing to generate income off-property, whilst raising young children. But, while acknowledging “being stretched to stay in business at times”, typically Marian identifies strong relationships as their recurring theme.

“It’s all about people,” she says, “…not just your orchard team. It’s your banker, your accountant – I love our accountant – lawyer, exporters, retailers, horticultural suppliers and consultants; strong relationships with everyone you deal with.”

Graham and Marian have clearly defined roles and they say this is easy to do because they recognise they have complementary skills and strengths. Graham was working for his parents on their orchard when he and Marian purchased their first block of land. He is now a recognised industry training assessor and usually has a horticultural apprentice “tucked under his wing”.

Marian highlights Graham’s desire “to do all things well” and practical aptitude. “Graham is very skilled and talented,” she says. “I’m not sure what we would have done if he hadn’t been able to keep the gear going when we had to be very, very frugal.”

Marian, who juggled off-property income generation with mothering and working in their business for many years is also a hands-on member of the team. She is equally happy spending a day at a food event with son Jack serving their delicious blueberry ice-cream as she is managing administration, compliance, HR, recruitment, financial planning and pastoral care, a role she clearly takes very seriously.

Graham and Marian point to the orchard foreman, Kelly Whaanga, as playing a pivotal role in the business. “We are very respectful of his role, he works closely with us both and focuses on the operational side of the business.” Kelly has been a staff member for 16 years. The Hirsts have supported him through horticultural management studies and in addition to his overseeing role on the ground in the orchard they trust his judgement when recruiting local seasonal staff through whanau (Maori) and aiga (Samoan) groups.

“We have a clear policy, we take on previous staff first, then family members of those staff, then locals including students, and the occasional backpacker. We support our local community because they support us.” But they also reach beyond New Zealand. Both Marian and Kelly have visited Vanuatu, home of the eight men they engage through the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme.

Marian made the trip before their first recruitment in 2008 and the Hirsts sent Kelly and his wife Helen in 2014. “We feel it is very important to understand everyone’s culture.”

The couple’s approach to growing is simple and unequivocal: “It is industry-best practise for everything. We are passionate about growing quality fruit in the most eco-friendly sustainable manner as possible. We have very targeted export markets, so everything we do is focused on great fruit, to the right market, in the right condition.”

Following a devastating hailstorm on their first commercially-sized crop in 1994, they leased then purchased a neighbouring block, replanting and redeveloping as demand for fruit varieties altered. The family moved from town into the partially finished house around the time of industry deregulation and uncertainty. “It wasn’t an option to give up,” say the couple. “When challenges arise it is a matter of finding solutions and sometimes there are opportunities in there too.”

The couple have since leased then purchased two more orchard blocks and lease one more. All have been redeveloped as required to ensure industry and market demands are met. The judges commented: “Blocks are immaculate, well-tended, tidy and healthy.”

The blueberries were introduced into the pipfruit mix in 2005 at a time the couple recognised they needed to make some changes in order to survive and thrive.

Marian presented Graham with five researched options for diversification. They agreed blueberries had the most merit but Marian’s small trial plot near the house morphed into a 250 plant area that year. The whole orchard team was involved in developing the area, planting and building irrigation systems. “There was our opportunity,” says Marian, “it was at a time when morale was very low, but the blueberries got the whole team engaged.”

This has continued with gate sales seven days a week in season, an ever-widening range of blueberry products including conserves, fruit paste, gelato, sorbet and a well-received presence at food events and farmers markets.

“The blueberries have a lot of potential,” says the infectiously positive Marian, “and have generated a lot of interest and a lot of fun. Now the pipfruit industry has evolved into one which has just as much excitement, potential and fun.”

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