The first comprehensive directory for the New Zealand Horticultural Industry

End of an Era

Supermarkets  – Once the only Place to be for the Modern Hunter/Gatherer.  Now just one of many options.

Countdown CEO David Chambers announced yesterday that he is moving on in June. Not an earth shattering event as such. Senior business leaders are constantly on the move, right? Yes, indeed; but there are a few aspects to Chambers’ tenure at Countdown/Progressive that are worthy of consideration. In the first instance, CEOs these days can’t typically point to a thirty-nine year employment record in the business they are leading. In fact, in most businesses someone with such a length of service has no chance to be offered the top job. Secondly, Dave Chambers is likely to be the last participant of the original Foodtown Management training programme who ends up in the top job at Countdown. The early Foodtown supermarket training model of the sixties and seventies was innovative, demanding and future focused, preparing its participants very well for coping with the challenges of modern food retailing and all it entailed.

“Modern” meant something different in those days though. When Chambers joined the training programme, stores were open five days a week, with a late night on Thursday. All store management positions were held by men, automatic replenishment systems were unheard of and computers were something Steve Jobs played around with in his garage. The Internet had yet to be invented, home shopping did not exist and all produce for Foodtown was purchased at the auctions.

We can safely agree then that Dave Chambers has seen a few changes in his career and that is without discussing the various ownership changes at Progressive, the demise of the Foodtown brand in favour of the Woolworths logo/Countdown name, the 180+ stores the company operates today as opposed to the 20+ branches the company had when Dave became a store manager and the many changes he would have seen in his stores over the last 39 years.

In those days, Foodtown stores did still have fully functioning butchery departments, with half beasts getting delivered to every store for processing each day. Today, stores are serviced via a centralised meat processing plant and the stores are void of butchers. A little known side benefit butchery departments provided their store managers with was instant security. When power cuts occurred, butchers were positioned at the checkouts, complete with meat cleavers and other suitable utensils to ensure that full supermarket trolleys did not start rolling out of the doors without their content having been paid for.

Chambers’ produce managers in his early store manager appointments in Foodtowns Kelston, Grey Lynn and Greenlane, were skilled in completely stripping and rebuilding mirror back displays, long before refrigerated cases became the norm. As head of produce during some of those years, I was in and out of our stores on a regular basis and knew all our stores managers. Dave Chambers stood out from the crowd even then, as a skilled professional with an appetite for knowledge and learning, an engaging persona, a willingness for constructive dialogue to achieve conflict resolution, a passion for food retailing and well respected by his staff – something he did not take for granted.

Dave, I wish you well in wherever your new journey takes you to.

Hans Maurer

Berryfruit in the Supply Chain

There is nothing more enticing than walking into a room in which you know you are going to be cooped up in for several hours to discover that the catering fairies have been kind to you and put a plate of your favourite fruit on the menu. Strawberries and blueberries. Yum. What happens to me though is this: I see the fruit, I like the look, I anticipate the taste – and then I often get terribly disappointed when the taste I anticipated fails to materialise in my mouth! It does not stop there either. Next comes a quick mental assessment of why I am disappointed in the taste of whatever just passed my tongue. Typically a few options come to mind, such as product being immature when picked, chill damage, too much time taken between harvest and my mouth, rough handling and so on. That in turn takes me back to how I think the fruit ought to be tasting in order to keep me from getting disappointed.
When I think about all of this some more, I get to the only conclusion possible. Fruit – and not just berryfruit either – is meant to be eaten when the fruit is ripe. Best way to eat fruit is straight off the tree or from the plant as that represents the greatest chance to get a ripe piece of fruit. We live in the days of complex supply chains though, all aimed at optimising the supply and demand equation, at best from local grower to local store, at worst across a couple of continents and half a dozen time zones. Picking fruit ripe is therefore not an option unless one is prepared for ‘fruit salad’ at the receiving end. In the absence of that option, more attention ought to be paid to technology solutions that could be put to use to achieve a more consistent ripe and flavour-some experience for consumers. That is the only way to ensure demand for fruit remains strong and grows.  The way the kiwifruit industry deploys NIR technology and the way the Avocado industry can differentiate its offer at the Point of Sale are good starting points.

Another Year Has Passed

Quintessential New Zealand

Quintessential New Zealand

I drove to Cape Reinga in November with a German visitor who was keen to see where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. We would have been able to see that spectacle of nature an hour earlier than we did, had it not been for appalling weather and a couple of sheep farmers who decided the conditions were just right to shift their mob a couple of kilometres up the road. On State Highway 1, in the teeming rain and amidst tourist drivers with bloody big camper vans and bugger all limited experience in driving these safely on the road.

One does not get to see too many mobs of sheep being moved about these days any more. Sheep numbers have halved since I arrived here thirty-six years ago. And if the current wool prices are any indicators, then the national sheep flock will continue to decline. Meat works used to be a dime a dozen, with one  being found in just about every provincial settlement. Gone as well. Progress. Dairy. Really? Milk powder prices, ok? Are they? Nope. And then there is Horticulture, agriculture’s little step sister – at least that is how we could be forgiven for feeling in the produce industry. We have a Minister for Racing and a Minister for Mine Re-entry and a Minister for Seniors, excluding Veterans because they have a Minister all of their own. A Minister for Children but also a Minister for Child Poverty Reduction because that is apparently a different matter altogether. And alongside the Minister for Agriculture, we will now have  a Minister for Forestry, a Minister for Fisheries, a Minister for Biosecurity and a Minister for Food Safety.

Where is the Minister for Horticulture then? Missing in Action by the looks of things. Yes, Horticulture is about growing stuff, so simplistically put its a bit like agriculture, isn’t it? There we are chaps. Problem solved. Just get on with it.

Well, alright then – but couldn’t we at least get a Minister for Not Building New Housing Developments on Prime Horticultural Land? Man, we do need one of those because if we keep on covering our prime growing lands with concrete, we will not be able in the long run to feed our people with New Zealand grown produce.  Unless of course we switch to urban horticulture .  But hang on – we haven’t got enough houses for all the immigrants we are letting in- and more to the point, our children, who have the audacity of wanting a place to live as well. So what do we do?

The terms ‘government’ and ‘strategy’ are not the easiest of bed fellows, unless, of course, ‘re-election’ is being strategised. Our three year electoral cycle does not help to focus the politicians on anything other than finding short term solutions. But somehow we need to cut through this Gordian Knot we are tangled up with, as trouble is looming beyond the horizon.

On that note, I wish  you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year  – which hopefully includes a reflective period of sorts.


Hans Maurer  aka Sauerkraut


Head in the Sand Approach To Feeding Auckland

pants_compressedThe debate about Auckland’s housing debacle took a new turn this week. The answer now appears to be to remove the urban/rural town planning boundaries and follow the guidelines established in the Wild West. In other words  – none!

Well, I have two problems with that. Firstly, there is a famous quote around, which I can subscribe to wholeheartedly – “we don’t need to build housing, we need to build communities”.  I do not see any evidence that building communities is even a consideration.

Secondly, if we remove the urban/rural boundaries and just start building all over the place, we will wake up one day and will have built dwellings on the most fertile soils in the country. Pukekohe comes to mind. What are we going to eat, pray tell? We can’t just stick our head in the sand and pretend this is not happening. Auckland has an unfortunate history in covering up the land, which feeds its citizens, with houses – and  judging by some of the comments made by certain politicians this week, we are about to do it all over again.

The history of market gardening in Auckland is well documented.  As the city has grown, market garden areas were pushed out.  At the turn of the 20th century, Auckland’s market gardens were clustered around the area occupied today by the Ellerslie racecourse.  By the end of World War II, the vegetable growing focus had shifted to Mangere  – now the site of a sprawling South Auckland suburb and Auckland Airport.  Today, vegetable production centers around Pukekohe.  And whilst some crop production, in the case of potatoes and onions for example, has already moved further down country to Matamata, it just would not be possible to shift Pukekohe’s entire vegetable production simply elsewhere.  Horticulture New Zealand’s recent press release on the matter says it all.

Hall of Mental Cultivation

may-july2011 293Translating a pertinent phrase from one language to another is always accompanied by challenges! This sign I saw in the forbidden city in Bejing a few years back though, is one of the better examples and has left a lasting impression with me. “Hall of Mental Cultivation” has a beautiful ring to it. ‘Hall’ – not room or closet or corner but ‘hall’, which immediately conjures up for me a wide and roomy space, yet defined because a ‘hall’ provides warmth and comfort. ‘Cultivation’ takes me down the process road as opposed to the ‘want it now’ attitude, and as a former nurseryman I can relate to ‘cultivation’ just like any fruit or vegetable grower. ‘Cultivation’ talks of effort, of skill and of patience. None of that instant gratification nonsense we are exposed to so often these days.  We could all probably do with at least a virtual version of our very own Hall of Mental Cultivation to keep us on the straight and narrow as the pace of change and the speed at which business is conducted is increasing.