Challenges will build our resilience for a stronger future

13 December 2023

2023, the year which brought so much pain to so many, especially our growers, is drawing to a close, and many of us won’t be sorry to say goodbye to the past 12 months. 

The year began with the Auckland anniversary weekend storm and got worse by Valentines Day when Cyclone Gabrielle caused havoc across the Hawke’s Bay, Tairawhiti Gisborne, Northland, Bay of Plenty and northern Manawatu regions. I know many growers, their families and staff are still trying to recover emotionally and financially, it has been a very long and arduous road, our thoughts are with you all.  

 On reflection, 2023 did deliver some positives for horticulture, and as is the nature of our industry and our growers, learnings for a better future have been found from adversity. 

The heartening thing that I witnessed during all of these horrendous times was the camaraderie and collaboration amongst communities and the wider New Zealand. People often ask me why I do my job and at the very core of it, it is because the horticulture sector is by in large made up of people who come to work every day because they care. You care about producing food that nourishes everyone, you care about the land that you produce that food from, and you care and take pride in how you achieve these things. It is this pride and care that creates an environment and magnetism where I and others in our sector want to support this cause. 

On top of the challenges mother nature threw at us in 2023 there was the added and often unrelenting regulatory and compliance changes that the previous government wanted to push through before the election, again with such a cyclone like style in delivering much of this change we all had to brace for the worst and hope for the best. In some cases, however, we had some positive outcomes and after six years of hard work by the environment policy team lead by Michelle Sands and supported with robust grower advocacy we were rewarded in August with news that the Natural and Built Environment Act (NBA) would support commercial fruit and vegetable growing in New Zealand. This is an explicit recognition of the importance of food security for generations to come. 

At times when I write about how resilient you all are as growers I cringe because you are having to be resilient in the face of adversity. With the passage of time however there are always learnings and hence usually improvements, we saw this play out in Pukekohe when the benefits of planning ahead were clearly demonstrated in January. While rain washed away some crops in just a few hours, the extent and degree of damage was significantly less than Pukekohe growers have previously experienced. That’s because in the last 25-plus years, growers, councils and the wider horticulture industry have worked to form the Franklin Sustainability Project and an Integrated Stormwater Management System for parts of Pukekohe Hill.

Then in February immediately after and during Cyclone Gabrielle growers, industry groups, district associations and HortNZ sprang into action to help those suffering its impacts. I know of growers who used resources like helicopters and tractors to rescue people. Some of those same growers had also lost everything – their crops, machinery, homes and all their possessions. We are all grateful for your selfless actions. 

Following this, primary sector leaders got together to develop a plan to address immediate needs, as well as the affected regions long-term recovery. As the frequency and severity of adverse weather events increase, steps to mitigate or reduce damage become even more crucial.  

In early February there was a positive for horticulture with the launch of the Aotearoa Horticulture Action Plan, this document was over two years in development with extensive consultation across the partners of industry, science, Māori and Government. It is a plan ultimately working on initiatives to double farmgate values by 2035 in a way that improves prosperity for our people and protects our environment along the way.  

On any road to recovery, it’s important to network, socialise, plan and envision a brighter future which is exactly what our inaugural Horticulture Conference Week (31 July to 4 August) gave our industry participants the chance to do. It was a rich smorgasbord of content and while no one was denying the challenges, the tone of the week was forward looking and positive and celebrated our theme sharing success to strengthen our future. 

I know the horticulture industry stands ready and willing to continue to make a significant contribution to growing a prosperous and sustainable economy while ensuring food security for New Zealanders.  

But to do so we must first take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Please take some time to relax and celebrate the festive season together and look forward to a brighter 2024.