Honouring the past while preparing for the future

16 October 2023

A determination to honour the country's rich horticultural past while dealing with the challenges of the day and preparing for the future is a key part of Bobby Lowe's vision for the industry. Vegetables New Zealand's newest associate director talks about his background, the family business, and his hopes for horticulture.

Vegetables New Zealand's new associate director Bobby Lowe at the family market garden at Runciman, south of Auckland

The associate director initiative is an opportunity to build on his management and leadership background, while also giving back to the horticulture industry, Bobby says.

“I felt that I could give more back to the industry at some point so when the internship came up, I was quite curious about it. I knew there was a Horticulture New Zealand internship as well but the Vegetables New Zealand one was a bit more appealing as we operate in that field. I wanted to see if my experiences and the things I learned overseas were relevant or applicable to Vegetables New Zealand.”

The associate director (formerly future director) initiative is a development opportunity for a future leader to join the Vegetables New Zealand (VNZI) board and gain experience in governance, leadership, and strategy.

The opportunity builds on the future leader’s current horticulture experience and prepares them for governance roles in the horticulture sector. The associate director is mentored by an industry leader and undertakes governance training. While this is a non-voting role, the board seeks full participation in meetings and constructive contributions from the associate director in the workings of the board.

Bobby hasn’t worked at a board level before, so the programme offers more insight into how these organisations are run, how decisions are made, and how policies are set, he says.

Bobby works two jobs: one as a design manager overseeing a team of nine based in Australia while working remotely from his home in New Zealand, and the other as commercial manager for SKL Produce, the family market garden.

The SKL Produce business logo was designed by Bobby more than ten years ago and features an eye-catching image of a tractor and farm buildings imposed into a chopping board. Bobby says that there are some limitations with the design but overall it suits the family business.

“We don’t market to retailers directly, we don’t brand our product, we just sell wholesale to Jeffery and Peter Turner at Fresh Direct. My parents feel that loyalty to them because they have looked after them for decades.”

SKL Produce grew from a small 1.6-hectare block in Glenbrook, southwest of Auckland and is now located in Runciman across 28 hectares. The business has three core lines: spring onions, Shanghai bok choy, and kailaan (gai lan). They also grow a small number of other vegetables including carrots and snow peas.

Fresh produce from Bobby Lowe's family market garden SKL Produce ready for market

The first part of Bobby’s professional life was not spent in horticulture. After high school, he went to Sydney to study industrial design and engineering, working in Australia for three years before returning home. He worked in industrial design in Auckland before joining the family business in 2012 in a range of roles. For four years he worked on the farm, but the business struggled to secure enough labour.

“We weren’t profitable at that time … I wasn’t drawing a salary at all. It was a bit dire, so I decided to step away, gaining employment outside of the business as a design manager. We scaled back to two or three employees; we managed a consistent level of supply where we could maintain a profit. We maintain an okay lifestyle and an okay margin and that’s enough for my parents.”

Bobby also serves as co-treasurer and secretary for the Dominion Federation of NZ Chinese Commercial Growers which held its 81st conference dinner in Auckland last month.

“My vision for the sector is very broad. There is a strategy that I’m aiming to implement with the Chinese growers’ association and it’s what I call PPF: past, present, future. I want all New Zealanders to know about the past and the shoulders that we stand on today.

A lot of history and institutional knowledge is passing away. I think people take the past for granted. I understand that there are trophies in recognition of contributions made to the industry, but I don’t think the stories are told enough about these people. I love the Sons of the Soil book, but I don’t know that there is a book for other growers and their communities. I would love to read a book like that.”

Sons of the Soil: Chinese Market Gardeners in New Zealand was written by Lily Lee and Ruth Lam and published in 2012. It incorporates more than 100 interviews with Chinese fruit and vegetable growers from across the country and features both historic and contemporary photos.

“For the present, dealing with the challenges of the day like weather events, or global pressures, economic issues and so on. The future is all about policy setting and technology – I’m a big proponent of bringing in technology … applicable technology to the grower that is economically viable.”

As for new strategies or fresh ideas to bring to Vegetables NZ, Bobby says collaboration with other industries and government departments is key to future-proofing horticulture.

“One of my goals is to increase our collaboration between VNZI, the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the fast-food industry. The New Zealand fast-food and takeaway market is approximately $3.4 billion annually. Many studies show how people make daily food choices based on price, convenience, taste, income and health. Collaboration between the MoH, the fast-food Industry and VNZI is vital to improving the overall health outcomes of New Zealand.”

Bobby aims to double the vegetables inside a Big Mac and reduce the starch and calorie level in chips.

“Is a healthy pie possible? I do not preach a specific diet as, due to lifestyle circumstances, it would be hypocritical. I have conditioned my child that a Happy Meal is a reward. I want to educate people on how to dress up a KFC bucket to be a healthier option.”

He says such a collaboration aims to create a profit for farmers and the fast-food industry. It is only sustainable when both sides can profit.

“The aim is to reduce the long-term health costs in New Zealand, in small steps.”