This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of The Orchardist.
Words by Elaine Fisher
“Getting back into your main work roles again after maternity leave is always emotional.”
“I love working through the seasons and being able to use what skills I’ve gained to make the decisions on what to do next.”
An orchard full of cherry blossoms, buzzing with the sound of pollinating bees is among Whitney Conder’s happiest places.
As the orchard manager and sole grower on a cherry block near Clyde in Central Otago, those sights and sounds hold the promise of next season’s bountiful harvest.
“Fingers crossed we have a kind growing season this time,” Whitney says. A successful season is very much hoped for given that the orchard was among the hardest hit in the region by storms that decimated a large proportion of export fruit in January 2021.
“We had produced some of the biggest fruit I had seen,” says Whitney. “However, when it rains like that, the biggest fruit are the worst affected. What we did harvest was beautiful, but just not at the quantity we wanted.”
With one weather event wiping out 12 months’ work, it is Whitney’s love of horticulture which keeps her committed and working in the industry.
“I started at the entry level into horticulture as a fruit picker during my summers as a uni student. The lifestyle really appealed to me, and sparked something,” she says.
Whitney grew up in the deep south, where her family were farmers in the Central Southland region.
In 2014, she took time out from hands-on orchard work and took up the role of operator trainer for the innovative New Zealand fruit handling and packing technology company, Compac.
“I specialized in small fruit sorters, mostly cherry graders. This took me to many different places including the US, Canada and South America.”
Training operators in South America tested Whitney’s language and technical transfer skills.
“Often no English was spoken and we worked with an interpreter, or even Google translate. It was a great experience which taught me a lot about working with other cultures as well as seeing different growing practices.”
Whitney’s husband Hayden also worked for Compac. While the couple enjoyed the opportunities their roles offered, they were keen to return to New Zealand and settle down in Alexandra.
Today she and Aiden are parents to two and half-year-old George, younger brother to a wee boy they lost at just two weeks old. Her experience of motherhood has added another dimension to Whitney’s view of her career.
“Getting back into your main work roles again after maternity leave is always emotional and in my opinion, getting back into horticulture work, as a grower, is another level altogether. Leaving your child with someone else is hard, even harder when your journey of becoming a parent hit every bump it could, in our case with two traumatic pregnancies.
“I had to make sure I was being fair to my family and myself but also continuing to take part in something I love, which is working outdoors being a fruit grower, giving the orchard what it needs to succeed as well. My husband and I have amazing family support for which we will always be grateful. That support has played a huge role in allowing us to continue to do what we love.”
Whitney now runs the cherry orchard on her own.
“I work what hours I need to get jobs done and timings right. I manage six hectares of cherries, on both centre leader and ufo tree training systems. I have around 1000 vines of pinot noir and pinot gris grapes and 130 feijoa trees which do surprisingly well down here in our Central Otago climate.”
Whitney doesn’t see her gender as a barrier.
“It’s definitely a role that has its challenges physically, but I do alright and if I need help with anything I have neighbouring fruit growers who are more than happy to assist and offer advice.
“I love working through the seasons and being able to use what skills I’ve gained to make decisions on what to do next. Of course, there will always be challenges working in an outdoor role in a Central Otago climate, but I believe it makes me stronger as a person.”