Meet the Grower: Woodhaven Gardens

photo credit: Woodhaven Gardens

Emma Clarke’s grandparents and parents established Woodhaven Gardens after leaving Wellington for what they thought would be an easier lifestyle.

“Neither had extensive gardening experience, so it was mostly trial and error,” said Clarke, “but 40 odd years later, we’re still here.”

Despite being a family business, Clarke stayed in the horticulture industry because she loved the ability to balance work and life.

“I prefer to be outside in the mud than the office, so it’s great being able to do both.”

The farm is divided into four sections. Each day, everything from planting and sowing to harvesting would be underway.

“We’ve got 226 going off to harvest 24 different types of vegetables, sending out five and a half thousand to seven and a half thousand units per day around the country.”

Woodhaven Gardens is one of the top four farms in New Zealand in terms of production, said Clarke. It grows everything from broccoli, leek and cabbage, Chinese vegetables, fennel, spinach, and seasonal vegetables like zucchini, pumpkin and watermelon.

Innovations and sustainability were already part of Woodhaven’s journey, said Clarke.

“We’re innovating with positive environmental impact, minimising environmental degradation that may happen if we continue farming conventionally, through to innovating in terms of machinery and assembly line production for our pre-packs.”

Clarke’s father always wanted the business to be inter-generational.

“Soil health and looking after the environment has always been a priority, but it’s the cultural, economic and social pillars as well.

“We need to be sustainable within the labour force, ensuring staff have a great experience that’s not monetary-based, through to fostering that family business feel to our staff because we are just a big family.”

With the shifting focus on sustainability, Clarke said it has made the horticulture industry question the why and how farmers do things.

“It has refined our production techniques, makes you questions whether you’re getting the result you thought you were getting in terms of synthetics and pesticides. It has put a microscope on our practices.”

Climate change is another factor affecting how things are done at Woodhaven.

“Climate change is starting to affect us in terms of varieties that are set for a particular season, like winter lettuce, and it’s pushing that calendar out. There’s no atypical May/June; winter is carrying on into November/December with an unsettled spring.

“This is challenging because we’re not getting consistency in weather patterns, which has affected our purchasing decisions and freight.”

Labour shortages were another challenge affecting operations.

“Covid-19 has created a massive labour challenge. There’s no free flow of migrant labour, and there is no horticultural business that doesn’t require migrant workers, so that’s difficult.

“It’s also really fatiguing, with the lockdown, trying to keep bubbles and wear masks. There’s also that anxiety with staff knowing they can’t rush into the supermarket on their way home. Everything has to be so well-planned both personally and professionally.”

Clarke said she thought the labour shortage would continue to be a constraint long after Covid calmed down. National policy standards and the future of Iwi engagement would also be a learning curve for many, which could create some anxiety.

Despite these challenges, Woodhaven won the Horizon Balance Farm Environment Awards in April last year.

“That was massive, positive public recognition for all the environmental work we have been and still are doing. It’s a good indication that we’re on the right path to a sustainable business.”

Due to changes in the One Plan and regional council requirements, Woodhaven has been operating unconsented for over a decade, so Clarke hopes they can get consented soon.

“We’d also like to grow and mentor key staff that we’ve got coming through.”

Clarke encouraged those new to or thinking about horticulture to “go for it!”

“Get a summer job on a farm, do the hard yards. Learn what it’s like to pick and pack the produce, and further your education.”