Award winning vegetable grower Allan Fong, Pukekohe, New Zealand, doesn’t shy away from trying new things.
Not all of them have come off - Allan will be the first to tell you - but the chances he has taken have helped shape the success he and his family enjoy as one of the leading niche vegetable growers in New Zealand.
The first generation New Zealand born Chinese grew Cos lettuce some 30 years ago. It failed. Today, his family is the largest grower of Cos lettuce in New Zealand.
Allan comes from a long line of market gardeners.
His family migrated to New Zealand in the 1940s and formed a growers cooperative Hop Lee – which means together we benefit in Chinese - at Pukekohe, near Auckland.
Allan entered the family business, which grew crops like potatoes, onions, silver beet and beetroot, when his father became ill.
“My ambition was not to be a farmer; I didn’t know what I wanted to do at 15,” Allan said. “Unfortunately Dad got very ill and Mum ran the farm. It was either come out to the farm or lose the farm.”
Younger brother Colin joined soon after.
The brothers continued the family’s market garden tradition, along the way diversifying to commodity vegetables and as contract growers.
But as medium sized growers, the brothers struggled.
Allan turned to niche crops and branding.
“We were small compared to other well established growers,” Allan explained.
“In the area we come from potatoes and onions dominate and cabbage and cauliflower and iceberg lettuce.
“Regardless of size you were all doing the same crop.
“What I found over the years is that we couldn’t compete with the big operators so I had to look elsewhere.”
What I found over the years is that we couldn’t compete with the big operators so I had to look elsewhere.
The Fresh Grower was born about 10 years ago and is Allan’s second attempt at branding vegetables.
He said it represented his family more than “myself” and “I am just a face of it”.
“Things got really tough,” Allan explained.
“I could see the world was changing in what consumers wanted and the convenience factor.
“It’s also been helped by publicity with food cooking shows and a turnaround in attitude in teaching the younger generation about food and growing food.
“I tried a few things and got laughed at because the timing wasn’t right.”
With a keen interest in marketing, Allan turned to the marketplace and discovered very few branded vegetables.
“I got so frustrated as a youngster because we do all the hard work and they make all the profit, so I needed to add value somehow,” Allan said.
“We are medium size so we target these niche crops that big growers wouldn’t look at and small growers wouldn’t have the resources to do.”
Today, The Fresh Grower grows 30 different niche crops and newer versions of old favourites like sweet petite cos, sweet stem broccoli, Shanghai bok choy, baby white pak choy, snow peas, beans, sugar snap peas, spinach and specialty lettuce.
The diverse operation incorporates supermarket supply and end-to-end retail in both New Zealand and Hong Kong.
It’s been a tough slog.
“I couldn’t get our products into supermarkets so I had to create the pull,” Allan said.
“I went to food shows, approached independent stores and I did cooking demos. By then we had branded The Fresh Grower.
“I got celebrity chefs, got into restaurants and that’s how I became brand orientated.
“But it was really difficult in those early years.”
Allan says The Fresh Grower is all about taste and flavour, with the consumer front of mind.
“We bring new recipes to the market to entice people to try and use the products,” Allan said. “I try to be sub five minutes, healthy and not too complicated.
“We go to extraordinary lengths to be service orientated.
“All complaints come straight to us. If there is a quality issue, they contact me and we attend to it straight away.”
His story impressed the judges at the 2016 Syngenta Growth Awards and he won the productivity grower Case IH award.
But when a Syngenta representative approached him to enter the awards, Allan told him to go and talk to the bigger, more established growers.
“When I met the other nominees I thought, these guys are really high calibre,” Allan said.
“I was flabbergasted.”
- Lea Coghlan traveled to Europe as a guest of Syngenta