A Growing Trend – Ngunguru Rd, near Whangarei

There’s a rising movement in the avocado business – females are cottoning on to the incredible opportunities across the industry. But it’s not just in the orchard that women are reigning supreme – MiNDFOOD talks to a range of experts from different areas.

There’s a moment Jen Scoular distinctly remembers in her four years as chief executive officer of NZ Avocado – at a Katikati road show, after about a year of being in the job, she suddenly noticed the women in the audience numbered about half.  

“Whereas at my first couple of road shows there were 10 or 20 per cent females,” she says, adding that a couple of women have since come up to her and remarked how nice it is to have a woman leading the industry. “Perhaps they feel more comfortable, it used to be quite a male-dominated space,” she explains. “But in actual fact, women are often at least half of the people managing the orchard. And it is still the ladies who show the greatest interest in the amazing nutritional attributes and versatility of the fruit they nurture in their orchards.” 

From Scoular’s in-depth knowledge of absolutely everything avocado – from orchard to export – it’s hard to believe she’s come from a background of merchant banking in London and a four-year post as consul general in Germany (where she was one of nine females out of 109 diplomats). These days, she’s more interested in the fact a female orchardist has told her where she can buy a battery-operated chainsaw, which makes it a lot more light weight to operate. “I want one!” she says. “Although it’ll be a few years before I need it – my avocado trees are only little.”

Pioneering Spirit

Orchardist Leonie Batt’s trees, on the other hand, are nothing short of majestic. While women in the avocado industry are finding their space more and more, Batt’s been at it pretty much from avocados’ infancy in New Zealand and is still going strong at 83 years old. In fact, we have trouble keeping up with her in her orchard as she races around in gumboots explaining the provenance of her magnificent trees.

“If I’m not outside, working or something, I start to feel lethargic, you know? I just don’t feel right,” she says. It’s not hard to understand why: her orchard is beautiful – a grove of serene green and dappled sunlight. Batt’s story is nothing short of remarkable. She begins: “I acquired a husband and five stepdaughters in 1962.” The property she still lives at on Ngunguru Rd, near Whangarei, was originally a dairy, pig, sheep and cattle farm. When her husband became ill with an incurable kidney disease, Batt couldn’t manage the milking on her own due to an allergic reaction to the iodine solution they used. They sold the pigs and dairy cows and increased the sheep and cattle but nobody would loan the couple any money for redevelopment because of her husband’s illness. So Batt went to do accounting work in town. 

During that time the couple realised they had a soldier fly infestation and they were forced to keep reducing stock.  “Sheep would be walking along and there’d be dust flying up behind them because of all the bare ground,” Batt recollects. Her husband died soon after, in 1974, and Batt didn’t want to sell just because all her pasture had gone. When Batt chanced on a notice about the first meeting of avocado growers she decided to go along. “They said two people could manage 10 acres. I thought, ‘I could manage a certain area myself’.” 

She set about finding out as much about avocados as she could, including trying one for the first time – “I liked them” she says – though information was pretty limited at the time. On advice, Batt did a sub-tropical fruit course at polytech. In 1983 she planted her first trees.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. At that time, death duties were a source of anguish, rabbits had to be dealt with, cyclone Bola hit and until the avocados bore fruit financially, Batt still needed to work in town, fitting in tending to her burgeoning orchard before and after work.  “I had to leave here at 7.30 in the morning, I’d get home at 5.30 – I became a very quick-clothing change person,” she says. She gave up her accounting work at age 60. And these days she can still be found up a Hydralada.

She’s an inspiration and somewhat of an avocado-growing idol to the new generations of women dedicated to nurturing this incredible fruit. Batt’s neighbour Sue Culham is included in those ranks. When Culham and her husband, Shane, and neighbour, Janice, started thinking about growing avocados, Batt was the obvious choice for advice. After many years of setting up the property with her husband, Culham now runs the orchard. 

Going Green

This is my office,” Culham says as MiNDFOOD takes a walk through her orchard, followed closely by newborn lamb, Custard, and Sam, the family dog. There are chickens, too. It’s an enviable lifestyle and one her nine-year-old daughter, Jade, has already shown some interest in. 

Whereas Jade is getting an early education on growing, Culham came from an accounting background and says at that time she had trouble keeping a houseplant alive. Which answers the question of whether or not you need to have a natural affinity for growing in order to make a success of it.  “No, I don’t think so. I just upskilled – I went out and did my production management level 4 in horticulture.” Her flourishing orchard proves her point.  “I have a passion for this industry. With avocados being a wonder food, I think it’s just going to keep evolving.” She puts her money where her mouth is daily. “I have a smoothie every day so I put an avocado in there with other goodies,” she says. 

Promoting the message that horticulture is a hugely rewarding career choice, especially when growing something as nutritionally exceptional as avocados, is something NZ Avocado’s communications manager Midge Munro – who grew up on an organic avocado orchard – feels strongly about.