Retirement beckons for watercress trailblazers

22 November 2023

Nearly two decades ago, Ruapehu couple Carey and Ernie Wenn began looking for a two-year business project. Now in their seventies, the couple are selling their well-established hydroponic watercress operation and planning their retirement.

About 17km southeast of Taumarunui sits the Wenn’s 1.9-hectare property which is home to their business Awawhiti Cress. Carey says the couple initially planned to spend just two years growing plants commercially, first looking at flowers before deciding on watercress.

“We looked at hydrangeas, begonias … we wanted something easy and popular. We wanted something accessible for everybody and something good for you. We came across watercress, and we thought it would be easy because it grows everywhere. It wasn’t easy!”

They started their hydroponic market gardens with a growing area of a mere ten metres by twelve metres, but now have around a third of a hectare planted. The couple also run a small number of sheep and cattle, along with some chickens. They ensure all waste from the market garden is either used to feed plants, composted, or fed to their animals.

Awawhiti Cress grows one variety of watercress, pūhā, microgreens — wasabi mustard, pea feather, coriander, Rambo radish (purple), broccoli shoots — and about nine different edible flowers.

Carey says watercress is a very versatile plant, from fine dining to the classic Kiwi boil-up.

“Our salad cress has even fed Hilary Clinton in Wellington many years ago and featured on MasterChef New Zealand. Watercress, there is so much more than what you see on the side of the road. When I'm joking about it, I call it green gold.”

They get three different cuts of watercress: salad (preferred by chefs), chunky, and large. It grows all year round but grows slowly in winter.

“Our nutrient mix recipe was put together specifically for us by Massey University as we can be very hot in Taumarunui in summer and very cold living under the mountains in winter.”

Carey says watercress is growing in popularity, with consumers keen on nutrient-rich foods.

“When we started growing watercress there were (and still are) very few commercial growers, so we had nobody actually in the industry to share their knowledge and ask for support. Quite a few mistakes were made, and it was certainly very challenging. When Mike and Annette Trent from GreenYard Veges in Southland phoned and asked us, we were happy to jump on board and mentor them and were delighted to read in the NZGrower [August 2023] of their continued success.”

One of the couple’s challenges is with their burgeoning seed-growing business, which is currently for their own use, but in time to come could become another income stream.

“Growing our own seed is a risk management strategy, it is our insurance as the majority of our seed is purchased through seed merchants in New Zealand. The seed mostly comes from the Netherlands, but always internationally. At times, the seed can be late arriving or held up at Customs, and we need to seed 1.5kg per week to ensure we have a constant supply for our salad cress that is sold to high-end lodges, restaurants, and cafes.”

The couple have definite roles Carey says, with Ernie being one hundred per cent in charge of growing and maintenance.

“The watercress looking so healthy is totally due to his management.”

From the beginning, Carey has been enthusiastic about making sure the business has good compliance and accreditation. From its early days, the operation has been certified by NZGAP (Good Agricultural Practice) and MPI (The Ministry for Primary Industries).

“During the Covid-19 outbreak, our legislation certainly held us in good stead. We only lost our microgreens which was quite soul-destroying but even those weren't lost as we gave them to staff who contactlessly delivered them to their neighbours, and the stock ate the rest. We amalgamated our deliveries into two delivery runs and initially sold only boil-up watercress to the supermarkets.”

Carey says she started delivery driving duties as their staff had families to support.

“As our butcher shops became more online, we were making contactless deliveries to their back doors with just a toot and a wave through the window. Our income was most certainly affected but the interesting aspect was that initially, we grew watercress for the salads and chunky sizes, from Covid onward, our emphasis changed more to the larger boil-up cress as cafes and restaurants were all closed.

“Also, during Covid, when I would deliver the cress, I would stop outside several houses in Manunui where I knew elderly folk lived, give a toot, and throw them a bag of watercress onto their porch or over their fence. They came to know roughly what time I was going past, and if it was a nice day, would be sitting on their porch,” she says.

Awawhiti Cress also received a $90,000 grant from the Provincial Growth Fund.

“It was basically one-third from them, and two-thirds input from us. This was for our last 33m by 36m greenhouse expansion. All the other expansions have been self-funded. We got a lot of support from Ruapehu District Council— in particular, Peggy Veen who helped me dot my i's and cross my t’s with the application process.”

She says the expansion came $1400 under budget and on time.

“As we finished building the tunnel house through Redpaths, we nearly finished the tables and plumbing, cut our first salad cress on the Monday, and went into Covid-19 lockdown on the Thursday. A few tears were shed by me that day!”

Awawhiti Cress has been quite successful working with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to attract, train and retain staff.

“We have a good relationship with MSD, they pop out and see us and give us good staff.”

 The Wenns have participated in the Flexi-wage and Mana in Mahi employment schemes run by MSD. They no longer use the Flexi-wage scheme but do still use the Mana in Mahi

Taumarunui work broker Briar Hickling organised for Carey and Ernie to take Mathew McElroy on full-time under Mana in Mahi. In a media release by MSD, Briar says it’s been great watching Mathew’s progress.

“It’s been amazing to witness Mathew’s passion for horticulture grow and also the follow-on effect, seeing his young family blossom too.”

Looking after five children is a full-time job and while he has amazing support from his parents, Mathew says he is also deeply grateful for the support and flexibility of his employers.

“They have been fantastic! Now that I’m working full-time, it’s provided me that financial security for myself and my children. It’s allowing us opportunities to be able to do things we were never able to do before.”

Carey says Mathew has now been employed by them for six years and is very hardworking. He has also been gaining qualifications in horticulture.

“We’re 17kms out of Taumarunui so we have to be a bit flexible. Mana and Mahi has been very successful for us.”

Carey has faith in the future of the business but says it’s time for a younger pair of hands to take over the reins. There has been international interest in supplying watercress to a company wanting to manufacture it into a powder for health supplements.

“I would love to carry that through to completion, but I need to be 20 years younger,” she says.

First published in the November issue of NZGrower.