New voice for smaller growers

19 September 2023

A passion for horticulture and community is the driving force behind TomatoesNZ’s newest board member, Jungeun (Jiny) Kim. 

Nestled down a long driveway in the heart of Waiuku, southwest of Auckland lies the Kim family’s horticulture operation.

Jungeun (Jiny) and her husband Minju have been growing tomatoes in Waiuku since 2019, moving from their first tomato-growing site in Helensville, northwest of Auckland. They grow the Daniela variety of tomatoes along with some courgettes.

“My husband worked for another tomato grower for four years before he started his own: he had experience growing tomatoes but he didn’t know all the techniques needed for growing. We failed that first year,” Jiny says.

“We were lucky to move to this [Waiuku] site, leasing it from a family friend. The Helensville site was much smaller and we have much more potential here.”

There are five greenhouses on their almost 4000 square metre site, however, Cyclone Gabrielle caused significant damage to one of the houses, removing the roof and leaving them with a large repair cost. Around this time the Kims also lost their one employee to the construction industry, which could offer a higher pay rate. So they have scaled back to four greenhouses, with both Jiny and Minju working for the business full-time.

Minju grew up in the countryside in South Korea, and longed to bring their children up in the countryside or a smaller town. He is passionate about horticulture despite its many challenges.

Jiny worked in the Israeli embassy in Seoul, South Korea for many years before moving to New Zealand, where she met her husband more than 20 years ago. Here she raised her young family, later becoming an early childhood education teacher. With no background in horticulture, Jiny joins dozens of other highly educated Koreans working in horticulture in New Zealand.

She speaks frankly about the difficulties the couple faced in their first few years growing tomatoes, citing numerous challenges due to outdated facilities, limited knowledge, information and networking opportunities in the tomato-growing industry.

“However, these difficulties ignited a strong passion within me for growing tomatoes. I discovered that I truly enjoyed the daily growth of tomato plants and how they responded to various techniques I implemented.”

Now, five years on from taking up horticulture full-time, Jiny is passionate about connecting the Korean community with the wider horticulture industry.

“I realised that growing is not just about financial gains but also about giving back to the community in many ways. Both my husband and I take great pride in that. As a Korean-speaking woman with a different background in horticulture, I strongly believe that I bring a fresh perspective and valuable, creative ideas to the industry.”

Twenty years ago there were about 60 Korean families working in horticulture in the wider Auckland area, with 40 of those families growing tomatoes. Jiny says there are now around 35 families after some retired, and with many more likely to retire in the next five to ten years.

“When I came to the south Auckland area, I noticed there were many Korean growers with more than 20 years of horticultural experience, but they had no connection with TomatoesNZ or Horticulture New Zealand. So they just grew tomatoes by themselves, and while they have a close-knit community, they don’t have access to any other support.”

“When we first came here, with my lack of growing background, a lot of growers from the Korean community came here to help repair things and teach us how to grow tomatoes. But there were huge gaps in their knowledge due to the language barrier. They might get emails about NZGAP or from HortNZ, but not many people could read or understand them, and digest what was going on.”

Jiny was able to help her helpers in return, passing on information from HortNZ.

During the first national Covid-19 lockdown, the Kims were selling tomatoes through MG and received a late-night email outlining the controls they needed to take in order to keep supplying MG under Covid-19 restrictions.

“I suggested that they need to send every single word from the email in Korean to the Korean community: they contacted me back and asked me to translate it. I thought ‘Oh no!’ because an English conversation is different from the language in the document, and I didn’t want to make any mistakes. A friend’s son was graduating in horticulture from Lincoln University so I asked him to support me and help translate it. With his support, we were finally able to send that information in Korean to other growers.”

Jiny says adapting to government regulations, customer demands, and environmental challenges can be hard to practice every day, but even harder for growers with limited access to information and networks due to language barriers, financial constraints, and labour issues. 

“I am particularly keen on being a voice for small to medium-sized tomato growers, as I am fully aware of the difficulties we face in this challenging environment.

“Smaller growers are very, very isolated. So as a board member, I want to be a channel to connect to smaller growers. I want to foster a better sense of belonging to HortNZ and to feel better connected.”

Having worked in horticulture both northwest and south of Auckland, Jiny has been able to use her networks to create a group chat of growers from the Korean community on a mobile app. It is a good way of circulating information from TomatoesNZ and HortNZ to the Korean community. And while people don't often reply, Jiny knows that many growers are seeing her messages.

I am nearly the youngest grower in our Korean community and often our older growers are struggling with the computer side of things in particular.”

The horticulture industry offers some great conferences, seminars, and workshops but often access to these is hindered by a lack of technological knowledge for something as simple as registering interest or attendance. Jiny hopes that growers will be confident enough to ask for help and upskill themselves in order to take advantage of some of the great industry knowledge that is available.

In August, Jiny attended the Horticulture Conference Week in Christchurch, particularly for the vegetable speaker sessions and TomatoesNZ Annual General Meeting. Horticulture Conference Week also included Talanoa, the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Conference 2023.

“It was amazing. I feel really connected with horticulture after attending the conference. However, while smaller growers don’t use RSE workers, more information about holiday workers or backpackers would be great. We are under the same horticulture or tomato-growing umbrella, but smaller growers face different challenges from the big growers.”

While the challenge of securing enough labour remains a common one across the industry, small to medium growers often have different energy needs and are highly educated people in different fields, learning horticulture from scratch.

“The starting points of being a grower are often very different for our small, local growers. It can be a challenge to obtain industry information and improve growing practices."

Jiny hopes more small growers will gain the confidence to step out of their comfort zone, connect with the industry and share knowledge from other growers.

First published in the September issue of NZGrower. To read the magazine click here.