Orchardist wins Young Horticulturist of the Year title

9 November 2023

Nelson orchardist Meryn Whitehead has won the coveted title of New Zealand Young Horticulturist of the Year.

Meryn battled it out against six other competitors - representing various horticultural sectors - during a two-day final held in Karaka this week.

The 29-year-old is a team co-ordinator at Vailima Orchard, a fourth-generation, family-owned business with more than 200 hectares of apple orchards stretching over the Tasman District’s Waimea plains.

Speaking after being announced the Kaiahuone rangatahi o te tau competition winner last night, Meryn said she felt a sense of disbelief.

“The other competitors knew their stuff and were an intimidating bunch to go up against. Having said that, it never felt like a competition; we were more like a support group for each other. It was a lovely group to be with and I felt privileged and lucky to be part of that,” she said.

Held in November each year, the Young Horticulturist Competition is a grand final that brings together the best young talent in horticulture. Finalists are tested on their horticultural practical skills, leadership ability, speechcraft, business acumen, and industry knowledge.

Meryn (from the fruit & vegetable sector) was up against competitors from the following sectors: winegrowers, amenity horticulture, plant producers, landscapers, arborists and florist/flower growers.

For Meryn, who has been at Vailima Orchard for three years, becoming an orchardist was never a clear-cut career decision. She’d always figured she wanted to work outdoors, but it took a trip across the world to New Zealand to clarify what that would look like.

“After leaving university in Wales I decided to come travelling before beginning a career. I reached New Zealand and did some seasonal work on a small-scale stone fruit orchard in Hastings and enjoyed it so much I went back the next summer.

“In my travels around New Zealand, between these two seasons, I met a Kiwi and decided to give NZ a bit more of my time than originally planned. That was eight years ago,” laughs this young woman who describes herself as “a bit of a hybrid,” having been born in England, spent most of her life in Wales, and now calling NZ home.

Back in the UK, Meryn’s very much horticulture focused family is celebrating her success. Her younger sister, for example, recently acquired an apprenticeship at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, and her father manages a National Trust estate.

While Meryn very much stumbled into orchard work, she’s found it ticks a lot of her desired career boxes.

“I've always been active and love that this job lets me get out and about with the practical side of things, but also love the office work I do, whether that's organising teams, or coming up with ways to make work more efficient, and easier for our staff,” Meryn enthuses.

She enjoys the variety and especially relishes the opportunity to encourage newer or younger staff members to push themselves, and to find the area of the business which they really enjoy. Now as Young Horticulturist of the Year she’s even more committed to this.

“I know I want to keep encouraging other people to take these chances and opportunities like this competition as it really pays off. And I want to pass on my passion for an industry I have stumbled into and want young people to see there are opportunities in this industry for anyone,” she says. 

Meryn was joined at the podium at Wednesday’s award dinner by two other female competitors.

Auckland’s Renee Johnson, representing the Amenity Horticulture (recreation association) sector finished in second place; and in third place was Lydia O’Dowd of Christchurch, representing the plant producer sector.

Meryn won the T&G Fresh Practical Components, Fruitfed Supplies Leadership and Bayer Best Practise awards and was third in the Countdown Innovation Project. Renee won Countdown Best in Sector award and was second in the innovation project. Lydia was the Countdown Innovation Project winner and also won the RNZIH Best Speech Award.  Meanwhile, Sarah-Lee Ewe, a Ramarama florist, won the Horticentre Charitable Trust Sustainability Award.

Young Horticulturist Competition chairperson Hamish Gates says the competition – now in its 18th year – continues to seed the future of horticulture.

“We feel very privileged to be able to continue fostering the future leaders of this wonderful industry. Over the past few years, we have seen rapidly growing support from our sectors, helpers, and sponsors alike. As a result, we are getting finalists who are more prepared, more impressive, and more competitive showing off their talent. Horticulture's future is in highly skilled and capable hands,” he says.

The competition’s official partners are: Countdown, Fruitfed Supplies and T&G Fresh.

Last year’s winner was Regan Judd, also an orchardist; while viticulturist Rhys Hall took out the title in 2021.