Allan Fong’s family has been in the growing business since the 1940s. Fong’s parents immigrated from China in their early teens to work as labourers. Since then, the family has branched out but also remained in the industry.
“My brother and I ended up on the farm after high school. We did a lot of mixed growing but about 12-14 years ago we transitioned into specialty growing, and The Fresh Grower was born.
“We went through many ups and downs from commodity growing to process growing, and supplying foodservice. But we transitioned into specialty growing because the industry is getting competitive in commodities and we were constrained by land area.”
Fong wanted to offer something different by bringing niche products to the mainstream market.
“Anything from specialty baby lettuce or broccolini to Asian vegetables, spinach and coriander.”
Fong added that food service had been good to The Fresh Grower, purchasing produce that consumers were too conservative to buy.
“10 years ago, people didn’t know what to do with pak choy, but it is now a part of Kiwis homes.
“My Son Ryan was a chef and he did a lot to help us with food shows, promotions and marketing.”
Food boxes like Hello Fresh and My Food Bag have also helped The Fresh Grower.
“They’ve captivated consumers with different experiences like Italian, Chinese or Spanish, and they get to cook it, which is great.
“It’s really helped us educate people about our specialty produce.”
The day starts bright and early with a 6 am meeting to get the teams organised.
“Everything is hand-picked, packed, washed and packed again, but we are governed by the weather.
“The weather determines our schedules and priorities such as seeding, planting, cultivation and harvesting.
“Like the other day, we were drowned in the rain and couldn’t harvest because it was so wet.”
As a family business, Fong’s three sons also work on the farm, and the younger generation helps with the technological side of things.
“Technologically, I’ve been left in the dust. If I have to measure the field for example, instead of stepping it out, the young ones open an app and it tells you the exact measurements.
“We’re also trying to become more paperless, and all the compliances are cloud-based - all the irrigation, cultivation and spray data is loaded into an iPhone, which saves time and work.”
Technology has helped with farming practices as well.
“We’ve lessened our cultivation practices, therefore saving fuel, reducing emissions and creating more efficiency.”
The Fresh Grower currently uses plastic packaging because Fong believes there’s no better alternative.
“We could use a paper bag with a plastic liner, but it’s the same thing, it just looks different.
“The plastic packaging is cheaper and keeps the vegetables fresher for longer. Non-packaged vegetables wilt and the wastage is huge, around 30 percent.
“You can be as environmentally friendly as you want but if one vegetable is un-wrapped but wilted and the other is fresh but plastic-wrapped, you’re more likely to buy the fresh one.”
Compostable plastics break down into micro-plastics, which are still bad for the environment so Fong is waiting for a better alternative. He also said it’s about being sustainable and affordable.
“I could the Rolls Royce of packing and add 30 percent to my product, but then it won’t sell.
“As production gets better more will become available which will make it more affordable for us to use at no extra charge to our customers.”
However, The Fresh Grower is reducing its fertilising as much as possible, as well as focusing on water conservation, soil retention and structure.
As a seasoned grower, Fong has seen a lot of changes in weather patterns and said it’s become erratic lately.
“It’s generally warmer now, but we’ve had wicket hail and frosts.
“We grow seasonal varieties and select based on variety, taste, colour, texture and shelf life, but now we have to be more aware of the varieties that we choose due to the weather.”
The Fresh Grower grows a lot of crops just for hospitality - special crops that are now “dead in the water.”
“Foodservice is pretty much done. We’ve still got some outlets like supermarkets and home delivery, plus some food service outside of Auckland.
“I feel bad for our customers. I hope they survive because without them we can’t survive.”
Fong loves what he does, despite it not being a “sexy business.”
“It’s quite mundane and repetitive, but it’s great if you love the outdoors, science, people, food. You have to have a little bit of everything in you.
“Some jobs are boring; the packers and harvesters do the same thing so we try to change it up for them.
“But I hope they take pride in a shopping outlet and see the produce they’ve packed, harvested or planted. That’s why I’m going to try and put the names of our packers on the packaging - I think it’s important to be part of a business, seeing it grow and seeing the produce on the shelf or in a restaurant.”
Farming is tough, said Fong, but it’s rewarding to grow something and bring it to the consumer.