Highlighting women’s role in horticulture

Apr 16, 2021

By Elaine Fisher

This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of The Orchardist.

Women play vital roles in all spheres of horticulture from growing to industry leadership, but their contributions are not always visible and that needs addressing, believes Helen Barnes, general manager, TomatoesNZ.

“I don’t believe it is intentional, but women and the work they do has tended to be in the background and I would love to see that change,” says Helen, who is also a member of Women in Horticulture, an organisation which aims to highlight the female contribution to the industry.

“We don’t have any women on the twelve-strong TomatoesNZ board and they are also not well represented on other boards. I think as an industry we need to ask what are the barriers to women taking up leadership roles, but also to recognise what they already do for the industry.”

Helen is taking part in this year’s Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator leadership and governance programme for women in primary industries. “In the past most of the participants have been from pastoral industries, but it is open to women from horticulture too and I’d thoroughly recommend it.”

Helen grew up on a dairy farm but when she was six years old her parents Carol and Derek moved the family to a lifestyle block on the Kapiti Coast where they opened a garrden centre.

“I loved helping in our huge home vegetable garden and in the garden centre, and realised early on that I knew the names of lots of plants and loved working with them.”

Paraparaumu High School’s passionate horticulture teacher Mrs Arthur, encouraged Helen to take horticultural papers for school certificate and bursary, which led her to completing a Bachelor of Applied Sciences in Horticulture at Massey University. Invited back to complete an honours degree, Helen investigated the impacts of an ethylene inhibitor on apples and also sunburn on the fruit. Her first full-time job was as a horticultural consultant in the Bay of Plenty.

Moving to Wellington, Helen took up a role with the NZ Asparagus Council, part of VegFed, which shared an office with the Fruitgrowers’ Federation. The two later merged to form the nucleus of today’s HortNZ. “It was a time of significant labour shortages and the work I did was part of the run-up to today’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme.”

In 2011 Helen was appointed general manager of TomatoesNZ, managing the industry body which
represents around 130 growers who collectively produced a farm gate value of $129 million per annum, including $12.2 million of exports to year end March 2020. The principal export markets are Australia and Japan, and product is also exported to many Pacific Rim and Pacific
Island countries.

“Most of our members grow tomatoes in greenhouses and TomatoesNZ advocates on their behalf at government level to ensure the industry is understood and supported. We also carry out research, particularly into how to control pests and diseases while reducing the use of sprays, and are active alongside other primary industry bodies and the Ministry for Primary Industries, on biosecurity.”

The industry is also investigating automation of many of the more challenging and heavy lifting tasks within greenhouses.

One of the biggest challenges for tomato growers is the cost of energy. “All the glasshouses are heated and energy costs are second only to the cost of labour.

“The industry needs access to affordable, renewable energy. Solar is not an option for many as you can’t put solar panels on a glasshouse, and the adjoining land is usually too valuable to cover with panels. Geothermal energy, heat pumps and biomass fuels are among the options under consideration.”

Helen believes growing undercover is the way of the future for secure, environmentally friendly food production, especially in the face of climate change.

The mother of four young children, Helen enjoys being involved in their school and sporting activities, as well as walking the family dog, reading, Pilates and family holidays.