Name: Robin Oakley
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Work: Oakleys Premium Fresh Vegetables
Grows: Potatoes, Candy Beetroot, Pumpkin, Broccoli
How did you first become involved in the potato industry?
We all had vegetable gardens at home from a very young age and were encouraged by parents and grandparents on how and what to do. There were school garden competitions from as early as I can remember. I was always very proud of mine.
I enjoyed growing various vegetables and getting to eat them, this experience was very rewarding. I would go out early every morning to see what had grown overnight and again when I got home from school, it was exciting stuff. Eventually, my vegetable garden expanded from an area around the main house area out into the paddock. After giving plenty of vegetables away, I saw the opportunity to sell surpluses to my neighbors directly and set up a roadside stall. From here, bigger surpluses got sold at the Christchurch vegetable wholesale market “Turners and Growers.” I saw an opportunity to make a lot more than just pocket money. All this was while still at school, around age 15. By the time I was in year 11 at high school I had about three or four hectares of vegetable production going on. I could see the opportunity to expand my growing and this appealed to me more than any other options, including staying on at school.
What does your role involve, and what are your responsibilities?
My official title is managing director, but I play a lot of roles in the company. I manage the company, as well as oversee the finances. I am also the main agronomist, so I help manage and keep tabs on the production side of the business as well! Finally, as the companies founder, I am involved in setting the strategic direction for the company. This can mean looking at the market and seeing what new products we could bring in, or looking at new places to grow our veggies.
What do you enjoy most about working in the potato industry and how do you maintain your enthusiasm?
There is something incredibly satisfying about planning, planting, growing, harvesting and selling quality and delicious veggies – you can’t beat it! I’m always so excited when we have a good yield and a bounty of vegetables to share with Aotearoa. I’m proud of what we put on the shelf and always moved by the messaged we receive from customers who love our veggies too. In particular, we receive many positive comments about our Golden Gourmet potatoes. For a lot of people, our brand is their cult classic, the one they keep coming back for. We love to hear how families come together at dinner and share a yummy meal while enjoying our potatoes.
What are the biggest challenges you face working in the industry, and how do you overcome them?
Right now in New Zealand, there is a shortage of talented, committed and excited growers in the workforce. As the business is expanding, I need more people on my team. That means it can be tricky finding the right people to join us. This is particularly true of young people, who often aren’t aware of the jobs available to them in the horticultural sector. So, we have to refine our recruiting process to identify the right and wrong people for our roles. It also means we invest time, money and energy into excellent internal training and support so once we do have the employees we need, they have every opportunity to flourish and build a meaningful career while working with our company.
Another challenge we face is the unpredictable recovery rate for our crops. We always try our best to make sure that as many of our vegetables as possible are up to company standards and can go on the shelf, but factors such as unpredictable weather can make our supply levels tricky to anticipate. The way we work around this is by paying constant attention to detail while growing our product. That looks like searching for patterns over the harvests and adopting clean green practices which minimize the “rejects”.
How do you raise public awareness your brand and your potato varieties? What channels do you use?
Currently, our main channels are at the point of purchase, meaning the promotional work supermarkets do for our product and staying active across various social media platforms. This is an exciting way to spread awareness as we can interact one on one with our customers and hear from them how much they’re loving our veggies! We don’t have as much awareness right now as we’d like, but this grows day by day, and we hope to start using other channels to spread the word about our Golden Gourmets, as well as our most recent product, the purple heart potato!
What new innovations, research and/or practices has your business implemented recently?
Following on from what I just said, we have very recently released a special new variety of potato, the Purple Heart! This spud hails from the famous Māori potato and is jam packed with vitamins, minerals and health-boosting phytonutrients. We’ve also come out with an Oakley branded ‘special red’ potato in our new trio pack.
We always keep the environment in front of mind at Oakleys. In response to global warming, New Zealand’s coasts have been predicted to spend more time in drought, so we need to be using water sustainably. This is particularly true when you consider how overwatering causes nitrate leaching and possible contamination of the groundwater. So, to make sure we use our water responsibly and in a way that protects our environment and precious drinking water, we’ve introduced moisture monitor probes. These tell us in real time the moisture level of the soil so that we can apply the exact amount of water needed. This prevents the overconsumption of clean water and contamination of our groundwater.
What are you doing differently to other growing operations?
While every vegetable company grows and sells it’s products, not all of them get as involved in the local community as Oakleys does! Our mission is to provide premium fresh vegetables to every kiwi so that they can live a long and healthy life. We look at health holistically by supporting Zonta woman’s group, community fun runs and donating to our local food banks. We also sponsor our local primary school, rugby teams, netball teams and so much more! Being a business in a small community like Southbridges (one hour south of Christchurch) means we have an awesome opportunity to strengthen the community around us and get involved in a bit of everything. Check out our website and Facebook page to learn more about our involvement in Southbridge and the wider Canterbury region!
Another point of difference is that we’re owned and operated by a fifth generation farmer, myself. My dad, his dad, and everyone back to my great-great grandad have been growing vegetables in the fertile lands of Canterbury for decades. I’ve learnt what makes a spud just right and how to work the land because it’s in my blood. I have immense pride in my heritage and think my ancestors would be proud of what I’ve built.
Where do you see opportunities for growth in the New Zealand potato industry?
I see a huge potential for increasing our domestic consumption of potatoes by way of using them in place of traditional rice and pasta. Potatoes are famed for being “bad carbs” or “fattening” yet they are one of the lowest calorie dense and nutrient-packed superfoods out there! Not to mention the amount of fiber they pack, meaning they’ll keep you satiated much longer than a simple starch. Sometimes people forget that a potato is a vegetable, that is to say, it is raw, unrefined and packed full of mother nature’s goodness. Compare that to pasta which is highly refined and has practically no nutritional value. I’d love to explore how we can show kiwis just how exciting and nutritious spuds truly are!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully, I’m leading the front for promoting potatoes as a healthy and nutritious choice over more refined carbohydrates. I’d also like to see our brand awareness continue to grow and our business expand as more people share the spud love. Growing vegetables is what I enjoy, so to be able to keep doing that and see how happy it makes people is the best kind of reward. Essentially, I want to continue what I’m doing right now. This is what makes me happy and is why I get up every morning. I want to keep leading a sustainable potato production business, that is a well-recognized brand, with a tasty product the whole whānau can enjoy!
I love the team I work with and would be excited to see the number of passionate people in our company increase even more. As we work towards having everyone’s roles and responsibilities fine-tuned, I’m eager to see just how efficient we can get at managing our crops and the Packhouse.
Personally, I love my cycling! I want to travel to more places around the world with my bike and keep smashing my fitness goals.
How do you think more young people could be encouraged to study and take up jobs in the potato industry?
I truly believe that there needs to be more exposure and information available about careers in potato or vegetable farming to young people at high school. By making this available, we can show our youth that there are exciting and prosperous careers to be had in this industry. Too often people just accidentally end up in the potato growing field, I want to see more people having the knowledge and empowerment to say “yes, that’s what I want to do!”. This can only happen if we are making those connections while people are still in school. This is the perfect place for people to get a taste of what we do, what it looks like, and how they can get involved. In my experience of going into a local high school, it seems that the only options seem to be going to university or working in trades, but that’s just not true! While these are both viable choices, there are a variety of careers to be found in our sector and so much need for people to fill those roles with passion and vigour.