Unexpected twists of horticulture career

Teaching English, numeracy, financial literacy and life skills to people from the Pacific certainly wasn’t part of the career path Ruth Underwood and Sandy Scarrow foresaw when they studied horticulture at Massey University in the 1980s.

Never bored - Ruth Underwood and Sandy Scarrow love their jobs.

However, the women, now both owners and directors of Fruition Horticulture Bay of Plenty, are delighted at the unexpected twists and opportunities their careers as horticultural consultants have brought.

They are especially proud of Vakameasina, the New Zealand Aid-funded programme their company runs, providing training for seasonal workers in the industry.

“The programme, which we began as a pilot six years ago and now operate throughout the growing regions in both islands, really makes a difference to the lives of those who take part,” says Sandy.

Ruth says social equity is important to the core value of Fruition Horticulture which is why taking on the training programme made sense.

People from the Pacific work in New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, known as RSE, which provides a skilled and reliable workforce for crucial harvest and orchard management work.

The men and women who spend up to seven or nine months working here, do so to earn money to educate their children, improve their living conditions and support wider families. Many take the opportunity while they are in New Zealand, to learn new skills.

Good work
“We have a team of educators throughout the country, and many say it’s the best job they have ever had. They say it’s doing good like working for Volunteer Service Abroad but you get paid, can sleep in your own bed and don’t risk getting tropical disease,” says Sandy.

At a Vakameasina graduation ceremony, a spokesperson for the students said, “The money we have earned we will spend when we return home. What you have given us will stay with us forever...” a comment which touched all those involved in the programme.

Vakameasina is a comparatively recent addition to Fruition Horticulture, the consultancy which provides specialist advice and technical services to the New Zealand horticultural industry.

Fruition Horticulture grew out of the former Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and later Wrightsons consultancy services.

Ruth, who grew up in Wellington, has been working in horticulture since 1986, starting out in Hawke’s Bay as a MAF advisor after graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Horticultural Science with first class honours.

“Even though I grew up in the city I was always interested in growing things and think a school field trip when I was about 10 was probably a catalyst for my career. We visited a daffodil grower who gave each child a bulb to take home to grow.

“As I got older I knew I didn’t want to go into landscaping or gardening but production horticulture did interest me, and it still does,” says Ruth, whose father David had interests in kiwifruit orchards.

‘Dig This’
Sandy’s father Eion was a gardening personality, broadcaster, author and well-loved for his long-running ‘Dig This’ television gardening show.

Growing things was very much part of her childhood but Sandy didn’t follow Eion into amenity horticulture or television. She began work as a MAF Horticultural Advisory Officer in Whakatane after graduating from Massey with a Bachelor of Horticultural Science.

The MAF horticultural consultancies they worked for was taken over by the nationwide company Wrightsons and when in 2003 it wanted to divest itself of that division, Sandy, Ruth and other consultants throughout the country leapt at the chance to buy the business and begin in their own right.

Today there are three independent Fruition Horticulture consultancies, one each in the Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, and Nelson/Marlborough regions. All work together on projects and share common goals and philosophies.

These include a focus on continuous improvement, high performance, holistic/goal focused advice, sustainability and improving the environmental performance of grower clients.

Holistic approach
Ruth and Sandy say taking a holistic approach to client advice is important. “Some of our clients are surprised when we schedule in holiday time for them as part of their orchard management plan, but time out is important,” says Ruth.

They are impressed with the remarkable recovery the kiwifruit industry has made from the devastation the vine disease Psa-V caused.

“Shortly after it was discovered in New Zealand I was part of a grower trip to Italy to see the impacts of the disease there and what we saw was terrible. I rang Ruth and said maybe we should be considering a career change.”

They didn’t of course, but stuck by the industry and their clients, playing a role in helping with the come back from what looked like the brink of disaster.

Together Sandy and Ruth, who between them have more than 50 years’ of horticultural consultancy expertise, say no two days are the same and they are fortunate in the wonderful team they have that enables them to do their work.

Both recommend young people consider careers in horticulture and if consultancy appeals, to look for opportunities in the post-harvest sectors or with Zespri.


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