You’d never know it was there, but down Woodcocks Road in Warkworth is one of the largest glasshouse facilities in the country. Southern Paprika Ltd (capsicum are known as paprika in most parts of Europe) grows around 40 million capsicums per annum in three glasshouses, covering a staggering 22 hectares. That’s roughly 22 international rugby fields, if you’re trying for a mental picture.
When you walk in, it’s hot, steamy – and surreal. The greenhouse is just so huge, and there’s enough haze to make you wonder if it goes on forever.
Glasshouses these days are high-tech, sustainable affairs, utilising computer-controlled heat, light, nutrients and ventilation. Within NZ we have about 65 hectares of capsicums under glass, producing 15,000 tonnes. Sounds like a lot? But to put it in perspective, there are around 27 million tonnes of capsicums produced annually around the world.
The company in partnership with the Inger family has also just begun a massive planting of avocado trees on a 400ha farm on the Kaipara Coast. 500 trial trees have gone in, with another 10,000 to be planted by November. And 80-90,000 more over the next four years. “Yep, she’s a pretty big job, all right,” says George Moore, Marketing and Distribution Manager. “You won’t hear too much about it for a few years though, till they start producing.”
SPL was established in 1998 and is a joint venture between Hamish and Robyn Alexander (Alexander Cropping Ltd), and the Levarht Company of Holland. Now it supplies around 50% of its crop to an ever-increasing NZ market, and send to Japan, Australia and Canad, as well as Japan. SPL employs over 100 staff, which puts a whopping annual wage bill of over $6m back into our community.
However, although SPL has a policy of offering work to New Zealanders first, they’ve found that Kiwi greenhouse staff find the high humidity and heat hard to handle. Relative humidity is around 85-90%, and the daytime temperature ranges between 21 and 29 degrees. So over the years, they’ve recruited greenhouse staff from the Kiribati and Tuvalu islands, whose proximity to the equator makes conditions in the greenhouse deliciously like home.
The island workers soak up the heat; peel off their layers of polar fleece, stroll or cycle in a measured, ‘island time’ kind of way through the vast glasshouses. “Yeah, it looks pretty relaxed,” says George. “But who can hurry in this heat?” George is an ex-Coca Cola marketing man, whose dad grew lettuces in a market garden when he was a kid.
These workers come to them either via the government’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme or via the Pacific Access Category (PAC) ballot. Southern Paprika employs 70 to 80 permanent Kiribati workers and 38 seasonal workers through the RSE scheme. With unemployment at over 80% on the islands, employment in NZ is an exceptional opportunity that these people are determined not to squander.
Some Kiribati and Tuvalu staff have been at SPL for many years now and they and their families are a valued and vibrant part of the local community, with an endearing way of finding almost everything completely hilarious. And as part of the local Pacifica Group, the Kiribati students’ singing and dancing is a delight to behold.
When we visit the facility, there’s a buzz in the air. It’s the end of the growing season and the plants have been pulled out. The RSE workers are heading home to the islands for three months before the next round of picking starts in spring. The boss, Hamish Alexander, is in the greenhouses; he’ll be having a few words before two pigs on spits are brought out for a farewell feast. We have a quick chat but he’s very reluctant to be photographed; flaps a hand at his marketing manager. “Get a photo of George, he loves all that bullshit!” We manage to snap them both however, in the enormous hothouse haze.
Hamish chats to the assembled crowd, presents some agricultural diplomas (some workers opt to extend their education here and it’s encouraged). It’s obvious he knows his workers by name, family and history, and there’s plenty of good-natured ribbing and laughter. He mentions the containers going home with them to the islands – three of them this year.
“The workers tend to buy and send home things that can’t be bought on the islands: power tools, sewing machines for their wives, outboard motors for fishing, mattresses. We organise the departure and arrival of the containers,” says Sheryl Lewis, HR Advisor. “It’s like Christmas when they get there!” Sheryl’s in charge of pastoral care for the Island workers; she sorts out accommodation, medical issues and anything else they need.
There are a couple of Kiribati speeches just before the pigs are brought in – then suddenly they are singing. It’s the rich, multi-layered, harmonic sound of the islands; it’s spine-tingling. All too soon it’s over and all bow their heads to say grace. We depart to let them get on with the farewells. They’ll be heading home laden with booty for their eager families, and the team left behind will plant a new round of capsicums destined for far shores. And shining fruit in all the glorious colours of traffic lights will be waiting for the Kiribati to pick when they return.