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Thursday 21 October 2021

LeaderBrand looks for gains from mega-greenhouse pilot

13th October 2021 By Bridget O'Connell | | @foodtickernz

LeaderBrand is pumping millions into its pilot undercover growing project to test the environmental and productivity gains it can unlock for its fresh produce business.

The Gisborne business is putting 11-hectares under cover as part of the project which started in October 2019 with the confirmation of a $15m loan from the government’s Provincial Growth Fund, although the build time has been extended due to Covid-19 delays.

Chief executive of the privately-owned growing and processing business, Richard Burke, said the project would accelerate crop growth all year round in a more sustainable manner, help to mitigate weather impacts, and create more consistent product.

The imported greenhouse is thought to be the first of its kind in New Zealand. The controlled environment meant less water and fertiliser were needed, and infrastructure like rain-water collection and a dam made the whole facility self-sufficient for water.

Over the longer term, it could also help address what Burke described as one of the biggest challenges the retail and foodservice fresh produce supplier was facing – being competitive on land when prices were being driven up by other successful export crops.

“Kiwifruit and apples are delivering really good returns per hectare of land, and growers are out buying land. As a vegetable grower, it puts a lot of challenges on us as to where that resource is going to come from if we’re not competitive,” Burke said.

“The more successful some of those export crops are, the more pressure it puts on fresh pricing – which is based on supply and demand rather than costs – at the end of the day we are all competing for the same resource.”

Burke added that the drivers into covered production were being able to generate more out of the land without having any negative impact on the environment, but also being more competitive.

“If we can get more product out per hectare – sure we have to invest a lot of money to do it – but if we can do that, then potentially that is one of the paths we can go down,” he said.

“This is certainly considered a pilot project. Whilst the supply for us will have an impact through winter, 11 hectares is actually not that much when you look at the supply we require, so 100% we would be looking at expansion.”

Leaderbrand CEO Richard Burke

Burke said the final figure for the company’s investment into the pilot was not yet clear given uncertainty around costs – and depending on what was included in the project – but millions was being pumped into it and LeaderBrand’s own investment could land near the double-digit million mark.

The McPhail-family-owned company behind the Leaderbrand and Garden Gate brands was set up in 1975 and owns and leases more than 3500 hectares across Gisborne, Matamata, Pukekohe and Canterbury. It supplied produce to Foodstuffs and Countdown as well as the foodservice channel including a contract with Subway and other quick service restaurants and food delivery services.

Its main divisions are salads, which comprise around 50% of sales, and fresh produce such as broccoli, sweetcorn, squash and asparagus, which make up around 30% – 35% of sales. The balance came from its Pure & Easy brand of pouch packs of processed corn and beetroot, as well as some wine and export sales.

The new undercover pilot project would also allow the company to experiment with new crops for its salad business as the company responded to consumer food and convenience trends.

LeaderBrand aimed to complete the build by June 2022 and ideally start harvesting its first undercover crop ten weeks after completion.

The project, which was importing its greenhouse from French company Richel installed by a specialist European technical construction team, was already meant to be finished, but had been drawn out by lockdowns as well as international shipping delays and border restrictions.



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