Women in Horticulture – Maria Fathollahi

Aug 14, 2020

A summer pilot project to lift the image of horticulture as a career for university students, and Northland as a place to work, has been so successful it will be run again next summer.



Maria Fathollahi, Northland  careers  progression manager, Horticulture New Zealand, coordinated the GoHorticulture pilot, which enabled seven students from Massey and Lincoln universities to spend the summer working in different industry sectors.

“As was to be expected with a new initiative, there were a few bumps along the way, but overall the response to the project from students and employers has been  positive, and we plan to recruit new interns for the 2020-2021 summer,” says Maria who is also a member of Women in Horticulture, a national initiative to raise the profile of women in the industry.

” So me of the students had never been on an orchard before, or to Northland, so everything was very new, including working a 40-hour wee k. That is why we had pastoral care in place and ensured  the  students  had time to discover  Northland  through  fun   activities,  as  well as work.” At 32 years’ old, Maria not only oversaw the programme but also played ‘mother-hen’  to  the first-year students .

“GoHorticulture came about because of the need among growers in Northland to bring young talent into the region. This idea came from Dave Kelly, a former director of Horticulture New Zealand and director of  Kerikeri postharvest company Orangewood.”

The project attracted 30 applicants, from which the seven young men and women were chosen. “They  were employed on avocado, kiwifruit and blueberry orchards and packhouses, with one student working with me on the administrative and pastoral care aspects of the project,” Marie explains.

As well as carrying out orchard and post-harvest work, the  students  were  each  given  a  relevant  topic  to   research. “Overall, it’s been a great experience, with employers saying the students were full of energy and ideas, some challenging the way things have traditionally been done , which can be a positive.

“For employers, the experience has been a chance to  question if they are doing enough to attract and retain bright young people in the industry.”

It’s also been an eye-opener for students.”Many say they had not realised how complex orcharding and post-harvest is and they have learned a lot. Some of the students already have job offers for when they finish their studies .”

A debriefing on how the programme went and plans for the next one was based on information from feedback forms filled in by the students and emp lo yers. Maria says as much is to be learned from what didn’t work, as what did.

GoHorticulture in Northland is a project Maria hopes other growing regions may also adopt.”It provides opportunity and contacts for young university students to gain summer work within the horticultural industry, which they may find hard to access on their own.”

A strength of the Northland project has been the fact that the students did not feel isolated as they were part of the group, spending  time  together  enjoying  activities  such   as  surfing and camping, as well as discussing what they were doing and learning at work.

It was also a learning experience for Maria, who says she thoroughly enjoyed being involved, and in particular is encouraged  by  the  increased  collaboration she is seeing across all horticultural sectors in Northland.

“It is becoming a much more inclusive industry, with different sectors working and meeting together and getting things done.This gives me confidence for the future of the industry and the region.”

Originally from South Africa, Maria and her husband Diego moved  to   the   Far  North  at  the  end  of  201 3, developing  a commercial blueberry, raspberry and avocado orchard, and producing fruit ice cream.

The couple sold the orchard  last  year  and  now  operate  the Kerikeri Wagon Wheel Holiday Park, as well as Torno Berries, a fruit and vegetable store in Kerikeri where they retail their now famous ice cream.

The mother  of  two  young  children,  Maria  trained  as  an agronomist , and has a Bachelor of Science degree. Her special passion is helping growers be more sustainable. By May  this year, Maria will once again be fully involved in  preparing  for the 2020 GoHorticulture programme .

” We will be looking for talented people who are passionate, innovative and possess a ‘can do’ attitude to help  us  lead  the way in horticulture in Northland .

Women in Horticulture is another group  helping  lead  the  way in the industry, says Maria. “Our Northland group includes anyone interested in horticulture, not just those directly involved . We  have  a  number  of  initiatives   planned,  including speaking to teachers, students and parents about career opportunities within horticulture.

“Another proposal is to offer parents the chance to work on orchards or in packhouses as a fundraiser for schools , which will also give them an insight into an industry which may be a future career for their children.”