NADIA magazine meets the Levin farmers growing our country’s veggies
People are as important as produce at Woodhaven Gardens near Levin. We take a stroll through the farm’s courgette,
leek and cabbage patches and meet a bunch of friendly faces from a variety of countries
Woodhaven Gardens will toast its 40th birthday next year. There’s plenty to celebrate for John Clarke, founder and managing director of this market gardening operation just south of Levin in Horowhenua. John had no growing experience when he started working the land, yet he’s transformed a two-acre vegetable plot into a successful business that spans 1000 acres (405 hectares) and employs more than 200 people.
Woodhaven’s crops include cabbage, lettuce, courgette, beetroot, parsley, pumpkin and spring onion – 16 vegetables all up, plus watermelons grown for the New Zealand and international market. Following the acquisition of a broccoli and courgette farm, broccoli has become one of the company’s main crops. The produce is sold through wholesale markets to supermarkets and shops around the country – you’ve probably bought Woodhaven veges before.
A little over 40 years ago John was a young vegetable seed salesman who quickly came to the conclusion that he ought to learn how to sow those seeds. “I realised that if I was going to be successful, I needed to know how to grow, so that’s what I tried to do,” he says. “And I never went back to the seed industry!”
His other motivation was the desire to create a better lifestyle for his family. John’s mother had multiple sclerosis and the hills of Wellington had become unsuitable for her. Moving to flatter land in Levin made sense, as did building a house where John, his then-wife Honora and his parents could live together. John, Honora and John’s father, Eric, were able to care for John’s mum while starting a small vegetable-growing business. Eventually, John bought his father out, but the family business continued by way of John and Honora’s children. They’ve been helping out since they were kids and are an integral part of the Woodhaven team.
John’s daughter, Emma, is Woodhaven’s sales and human resources manager. She lives in the family home on the farm (John is now a few hundred metres away). Emma wasn’t always keen on joining the business. She left the farm to study, but returned to help when her parents separated. One thing led to another and she ended up staying on and finishing her degree extramurally. Her three kids are lined up to join the family firm one day, too. Her chartered accountant brother, Jay, is based in Wellington but flies in and out, consulting on special projects and contributing as a company director. Working with his kids is special, says John. “We’re pretty close, and we’re very passionate about the business.”
John loves the everyday challenges (“from weather through to people”) and the connection to nature and people that his job provides. “I love the outdoors, I love the satisfaction of growing a crop, and I love the people. We have a really extraordinary group of staff that we work with.”
Employees hail from around 20 countries including Samoa, Kiribati, Malaysia and Chile. Cultural differences are celebrated throughout the year. Each day a different nationality flies its flag, while cultural performances are common at sports days, Christmas concerts and events such as the Horowhenua Taste Trail.
Many staff have been at Woodhaven for more than 10 years – some more than 20 – and the family business model filters down from the top. It’s not uncommon for married couples, siblings or two generations of a family to pick alongside each other. Children of current and past employees are supported through two annual tertiary scholarships offered by Woodhaven.
Is the company culture the reason staff stay so long? “You always like to think that’s why,” John says. “I think it is.” You’d have to like your colleagues in this line of work. “It’s a tough job,” John says. Especially in extreme weather conditions. “We don’t stop for the weather.” Production (post-harvest handling, sorting, packing etc), is seven days a week. It may be cold, hard work, but it’s satisfying. John still occasionally works the fields, but his main focus is on sales, management and keeping an eye on the crops.
The industry has changed dramatically over the years, from being hands-on to predominantly mechanised. Harvesting is still done by hand, but production and irrigation are now automated. One constant is the team’s commitment to quality and their aim to grow sustainably.
John is passionate about advances in technology and sustainability. Woodhaven’s farm management system, Hortrac, has won a number of innovation awards. “We try and grow the change. We’re looking for advances wherever we can,” John says. He’s learned by “making a lot of mistakes”.
The team practises sustainable land management by rotating crops so that the soil remains fertile, and planting beneficial cover crops, which are ploughed back into the earth to enrich it. Horowhenua’s fertile land and temperate climate have made it an important agricultural region for many years. John and his team are committed to honouring this history, while innovating to ensure the area’s future.
NADIA celebrates living a ‘well-thy’ life. The magazine’s back-to-basics approach champions food, family, community, wellness, travel, entrepreneurship and what it means to be a New Zealander today.