Three generations growing veges

Last updated 05:00 04/08/2014

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The third generation of Gordon Sue's family is tilling the soil and growing vegetables in Horowhenua, catering for growing demand from supermarkets throughout the North Island.

Sue's great-grandfather came from China in the 1860s to dig for gold. When that was elusive he turned his hand to growing vegetables.

Sue's father was born in Alexandra, Otago, went back to China and moved to Wellington where he ran a greengrocer's shop before he and his wife moved to Levin when Sue was a 1-year-old.

Since then the family has made a "comfortable living" market gardening.

"As soon as I could walk, right from the word go, you had to work," the 69-year-old said.

As a small boy he learnt from his father, working beside him in the fields with his two brothers. He grew up weeding, planting and making teepees for beans.

"We enjoyed it. We did not have a lot. Mum and dad had nothing but the lease of the land," he said.

In the early days his father used a draught horse to plough the soil but that had been replaced by tractors. At the age of 16, Sue's father became ill and he had to go to the market before school two mornings a week, getting up at about 3.30am, before leaving school to work full-time for the business.

With the third generation, his two sons, working for the family business, he believed they were now, "true Kiwis".

Clocking up 60 years on the land, he now leased two additional blocks, increasing the size of the market garden to about 200 acres and employed 12 people.

His sons, aged in their 40s, help run the business which, through brokers, provides vegetables for Wellington, Palmerston North and Auckland supermarkets.

Developing a reputation for growing top quality cabbages, cauliflowers and lettuces, they had branched out into broccoli, celery and leeks.

At any one time they have 60,000 broccoli plants in the ground, planting 300 trays with 200 plants in each every 10-14 days. Growing iceberg lettuces all year round, they plant about 300 every 10 days.

The weather in Levin was traditionally ideal for growing vegetables, he said, with the right combination of rain and sun, but increased wet spells slowed down planting and reduced the quality of production which pushed up prices.

Feeding the plants with phosphates, nitrogen, potash, phosphorous, magnesium, boron and sulphur, they recently added more organic liquid seaweed which seemed to improve the flavour. If vegetables looked good, they had more appeal for shoppers, he said.

A member of Horticulture New Zealand, he said they had carried out promotions in schools nationwide to encourage people to eat more vegetables, "but they are just too busy. You just have to see all the takeaway joints in every town," he said.

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Working seven days a week, most years they made a profit but sometimes a loss. Many growers had left Horowhenua over the past few years, he said - at one time there were about 150 but now there were fewer than 20.

Supermarkets tended to buy from only a couple of bigger local growers, he said.

With a 4-year-old grandson enjoying working alongside him on the land, the 69-year-old was hopeful the family tradition would continue.

"He is out there with me all the time. He knows everything - all the machinery, what it does. It is a good life. I look like a cauli or cabbage now . . . my roots are stuck in the ground," he said.

- The Dominion Post

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