By Elaine Fisher
This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of The Orchardist.
Ensuring the industry association is relevant and sustainable into the future and grower views are well represented are among the goals for newly elected Chair of New Zealand Avocado Growers’ Association Inc, Linda Flegg.
An independent review of the structure of the avocado industry in 2020 highlighted a number of areas that growers felt could be improved, Linda says.
“We’ve never undertaken a formal review before, so it’s a real milestone for the industry. The information in the final report will give us recommendations to decide on a pathway to ensure we’re relevant for the next 10 years and beyond. That relevance is all about how we as an industry
association support our members to have profitable and sustainable businesses.
“In combining the two organisations, NZ Avocado Growers’ Association Inc, and Avocado Industry Limited under the NZ Avocado banner, NZAGA lost its visibility as an organisation. The review reported that growers want to see that visibility restored, and I support that.”
Other challenges ahead include competition from Chile, particularly in Australia; ensuring Asian markets receive the quality fruit they require; and handling the significant on-shore crop increases predicted to come on stream within the next 10 years.
“Chile exported around 400,000 trays of avocados to Australia this season and that’s probably less than one percent of its total crop, so that’s a concern. While ensuring we retain our place in the Australian market, we also have to pay attention to Asian markets to ensure we retain and grow export volumes there.”
In the current season, 1,016 New Zealand growers exported around 4.6 million trays of avocados, up from 2.9 million trays in the 2018–2019 season.
A plus (if there is one) of Covid-19, is that consumers are seeking healthy foods, increasing the demand for New Zealand avocados, but the negative impacts of the pandemic have included disruptions to shipping and increased costs of air freight.
“Fortunately, this season’s fruit has been of very good quality and has stood up well to shipping delays.” While exporters and NZ Avocado are continuing to work closely with airlines and shipping companies, Linda believes disruptions are likely to plague the coming season too. “We are not a big enough industry to charter ships as Zespri does for kiwifruit.”
With all those challenges ahead, Linda’s role in the chair will not be easy, but she is focused on both the immediate issues and those of the future, with a vision “to quote former NZAGA chairman Ashby Whitehead – to make the boat go faster”.
“Avocado growers are really passionate about long-term sustainability – not just for the environment, but social and economic sustainability too.
“We want the industry to have a positive sustainability story by making evidence-based decisions for everything that we do. This will allow us to achieve our goals such as leaving a light footprint on the earth, supporting strong communities, and providing safe workplaces.”
For Linda, her governance role requires stepping back a little and looking at the big picture, something she has learnt to do since being elected to the NZAGA in 2016.
“I’ve always been a details, operations person but quickly realised that there is a difference between operations and governance. I joined the board to give back to the industry which has given much to me and to learn new skills.”
In 2017 Linda was elected vice-chair. When in 2020 chairman Tony Ponder stepped down, she became the first woman in the NZAGA’s 40-year history to take the role. While believing roles in any organisation should go to the person best suited for that position, Linda is nonetheless pleased that the current NZAGA board has a strong female presence with Karen Pickford, Maria Watchorn and Paula Kearns also at the table. This reflects the fact that many women are involved in the management of avocado orchards and make up around 50% of the industry workforce.
Linda, a member of Women in Horticulture, an organisation which supports women in the industry and encourages them to take leadership roles, grew up immersed in horticulture.
Her parents first bought a dairy farm at Kauri Point near Katikati in the 1950s, and over time converted the land to grow a wide variety of crops from pumpkins to kiwifruit and avocados.
As soon as she was old enough, Linda helped in the orchards and packhouse, but didn’t see a career future in the industry. “When I was at high school, the only career I knew of in horticulture was manual labour. How different it is now, with so many, many opportunities.”
Educated at Katikati primary and high schools, Linda completed a certificate in business computing thinking about a career in IT. Her first job was in container logistics at the Port of Tauranga with Seatrans. “Part of my role was to train staff to make the transition from the DOS based computer software to Windows 1.”
After five years and seeing little opportunity to progress in that role, Linda joined the private adult learning provider Bay Business Academy, training women to rejoin the workforce and helping teenage girls who struggled at school to gain the skills to prepare for work.
In 1999, when her older sister Jenny Gilliver left to start a family, Linda stepped into her role in the family business. Today she is a director of the businesses Morris Moore Farms, KauriPak, AvoPic and Kingsmill Engineering, which between them employ 20 full-time staff.
Morris Moore Farms operates the company’s avocado and kiwifruit orchards; KauriPak packs avocados for 160 grower clients; AvoPic is a contract avocado harvesting company servicing KauriPak clients, and Kingsmill Engineering maintains the machinery and equipment operated by the businesses.
When Linda first joined the family firm, her role was only just full-time. Today she is responsible for the companies’ compliance requirements including health and safety, food safety, phytosanitary requirements and GLOBALG.A.P. while another full-time staff member carries out the administration work that once made up her role.
Linda’s first steps into industry leadership began when she joined the NZ Avocado Packer Forum which represents the companies packing avocados and has a memorandum of understanding with NZ Avocado, consulting on postharvest requirements.
Four years ago, Linda was elected chair of the Katikati Fruitgrowers’ Association following a long family tradition of involvement in grower representation.
“When I stood for a position on the NZAGA board in 2016 I was up against two men and was pleased to win the seat.” Re-elected for a second term, Linda became deputy chair, and when Tony Ponder signalled his intention to stand down, expressed her willingness to upskill for that role.
While very much her own woman, Linda nonetheless draws on the decades of experience her parents Dorothy and Hugh Moore have in the horticultural industry both as growers and in leadership roles.
Hugh a former NZAGA chairman, is renowned for his exceptional memory of facts and figures, something Linda finds invaluable in helping understand the background to many of the avocado industry’s practices and quality standards. “Knowing the why behind the things we do helps with current decision making.”
The “fashionable and trendy” status of avocado as a super food is among the attractions for many growers, and it is an industry which offers opportunities for all levels of orchard size and investment.
“It is still possible to be profitable on a small orchard as well as a large one, so long as growers apply best practice and produce quality fruit.”
Bull terriers are Linda’s other passion. For more than 20 years she has bred and trained the breed under the name Vortex Kennels. Such is her expertise that Linda is a national and international judge, who has regularly travelled overseas to judge at prestigious events.
“I have four adult bull terriers and two puppies at present. Numbers of pedigree bull terriers are dwindling, and my goal is to preserve the breed by working with owners and breeders to ensure that we continue to produce healthy bull terriers with sound temperaments.”