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Introducing the 2013 Finalists

Ben James

Winner of 2013 Young Grower of the Year

In 2012 Ben entered the Hawkes Bay ‘Young Fruit Grower’ and won the competition. He followed up this success repeating his winning streak by taking out the Horticulture New Zealand’s Young Grower of the Year title and gaining entry to the Young Horticulturist of the Year. He has the clear intention to continue his winning performance.

As foreman for Mr. Apple, Ben’s role is to quality control all aspects of fruit production. During August pruning season this involves the management of 22 workers pruning the fruit trees, and up to 120 workers during the thinning and harvest season.  It’s his job to ensure that, no matter what the skill level, they are all achieving the goals of the business.

While people management is a special interest for Ben, his favourite time is frost protection. “At 1am the orchard is peaceful and quiet, it’s just me and the boss are out there; the alarm wakes you and we go out and turn on the wind machines.”

Ben’s currently studying at Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT ) in Hawkes Bay for his National Certificate in Horticulture. This is backed up by a raft of industry related certificates that he’s earned over the past few years.

Born and raised on pip fruit and stonefruit orchards in Hastings, Ben’s been in fresh fruit production most of his life.

He joined the military straight out of school then built houses for 5 years. He says he came back to horticulture for job security, and because it’s part of his heritage, with both his father and grandfather being orchardists.

Ben spends his rare spare time with his 8yo daughter; watching her netball or cricket on Saturday mornings is a highlight, as well as time with family and friends.

As for Young Horticulturist of the Year; he sees the AGMARDT Market Innovation Project  as being the primary challenge in the competition. “I’ve done hands on work through my career so I don’t have a lot of experience with developing and writing business plans,” explains Ben.

He says it’s going to be a big learning experience and he’s already checking out the viability of some of his concepts for the AGMARDT Market Innovation project.

He entered this competition for career development and to place him in a position to help youth in the industry to achieve. “Through mentoring I can give youth the opportunities they need to succeed, however they need to grab it with both hands.”

Ben’s philosophy is ‘Do it once. Do it right’.

“You only get one shot at this (Young Horticulturist of the Year) so I’ve got to get it right”

Blair Chicken

Winner of the 2013 City Parks Services Young Landscaper of the Year competition

Born and raised in West Auckland, 28 year old Blair Chicken embarked on sports turf management before moving into machine earth moving and civil contracting.  His first introduction to the landscaping industry was 5 years ago when he started his career as a digger operator. His natural talents in management saw him develop into his role as site foreman for Natural Habitats, a leading landscape company in Auckland. 

Blair organises the work for the team for each project that the company allocates to him.  “Our company designs and builds, so you’re often working with the designer and staying in contact with the client. No two jobs are ever the same,” he explains.

His goal is to work hard and get the job done efficiently. “Planning is really important, and making sure that everyone is happy on the job.”

 This June, Blair entered and won the City Parks Services Young Landscaper of the Year competition held in Queenstown. He was shortlisted through the practical activities and interview process. Blair drew on his interest in green technology as the basis of his speech in the competition. “Our company specialises in green technology - green roofs, green walls - and I see it as the way the world is moving,” he explains.

 Natural Habitats are supporting Blair through the competition process, with days off when he needs them and extra courses if required.

He’s looking forward to the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition.  Blair says it will expand his knowledge, particularly with the AGMARDT Market Innovation project. “And I’m sure I’ll benefit from the study I’ll need to do.”

Blair has Level 4 HITO Landscaping certificate, and has completed three years of a sports turf management apprenticeship. Through his digger operating experience he has been trained to be an assessor and runs the Natural Habitats machine training and competency programme.  

Surfing, snow boarding, fishing, golf and soccer help keep this contestant fit through the seasons.

While Blair hasn’t looked at the prize package for the Young Horticulturist of the Year, having travelled through most of Europe, and the Pacific, he does have South America on his list.

Jessica Mills

Winner of 2013 Young Florist of the Year competition

Taranaki florist Jessica brings the requisite skills and commitment to the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition; she also brings a taste of the 2010 competition.

Enticed by the experience three years ago, Jessica decided that she wanted to enter this year’s competition.  Her Mentor Joy Knight reminded her that to qualify, she first had to win the floristry sector.   Jessica competed with twelve other contestants in the Ellerslie Flower Show in March.  “It was really intense, we were competing and demonstrating for 10 days.”  She won the award for best speech and went on to win ‘Young Florist of the Year’.

Jessica came to floristry on the advice of a friend and completed the Level 3 Floristry at the Bay of Plenty Poly tech. Eight years on, she is co owner of  Flowers 4 you, in Hawera.

She sees upskilling as an essential part of her development; completing Level 3 and 4 in Floristry with NZ Hort ITO, and now studying Level 4 Advanced Theory and Research.  “If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet such a wide range of interesting people,” she says. “My tutor, Joy Knight is always suggesting ideas.”

Jessica feels that she has unfinished business with the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition. “The first time I entered I was quite green, this time I want to give it a really good go.”

Coming from a farming background, Jessica is aware that she needs to skill up in the fruit and vegetable area for the competition.  She’s also brushing up on crop management and her tractor skills. “I’ve got three great tutors, and this time I’m coming with more knowledge and more experience,” she says.

She’s already developed three ideas for the challenging AGMARDT Market Innovation project.

No stranger to long hours, Jessica’s florist business sees her working 7 days a week. Sundays are spent picking greenery, and she manages to fit in demonstrations for groups in her precious spare time.

Her partner Neil is a dairy farmer from Northern Ireland; the couple visited there last year, and are planning a return trip for 2014. If she wins Young Horticulturist of the Year competition, her prize could take her even further afield.  “It’s the competition and the opportunities that it opens up afterwards, the prize is really a bonus.”

Kelly Jean Kerr

Winner of 2013 Young Achiever Award in the Nursery and Garden competition

Landscape designer Kelly Jean Kerr was “strongly encouraged” to enter the 2012 ‘Hortfert Young Achiever Award’. Despite the support of her manager, Kelly Jean felt a little hesitant, yet still managed to secure second place in the 2012 competition.

“After that I decided that I wanted to win it.  I knew it was in my ability and skill set, and that I could win,” says Kelly.  The fact that it was one woman against three men saw just a hint of feminine pride at stake as well. Kelly Jean won ‘Hortfert Young Achiever’ in 2013 which places her as a finalist in the Young Horticulturist of the Year Competition 2013.

She says that if she could win Young Achiever that she’d give it her best shot to win the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition. While Kelly Jean was familiar with some aspects of the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition she now realises there’s more to it “which shouldn’t surprise me as I’ve seen ‘Young Farmer’ and there’s lots to do”.

Kelly Jean earned her degree in landscape architecture (with honours) at Lincoln University in Canterbury. “Everything else I’ve learned here is on the ground, including licenses for forklift.”

Her work as a landscape designer spans team leadership for the staff at Springvale Garden Centre, landscape consults with clients, event management, sales and customer management. She can also drive a forklift and front end loader for the landscape supply bins; a skill that may serve her well in the competition.

Kelly Jean’s favourite part of her job is working with plants outside. She says that every day of her job is different and that she learns something about plants daily.

Kelly Jean has recently become a first time owner of an ex state house. There’s much to do, and she has her own garden to tend to, which takes up some time. Reading, photography, music and singing fill any spare hours. She’s also a contributor to a Total Health programme which focuses on healthy lifestyles. “I talk about growing vegetables and how they help us towards healthy living,” she explains.

The head judge of the ‘Hortfert Young Achiever Award’ is now Kelly Jean’s mentor. Carol Fraser of Growing Spectrum along with NGINZ are ensuring she has all the support that she needs.

Kelly Jean’s juggling the busyness of spring with competing in Young Horticulturist of the Year, and recognises the importance of time management. While she knows that one of her challenges will be the AGMARDT Market Innovation project, successfully backing a trailer is also a skill she knows she needs to master.

Kelly loves to travel and hopes to combine travel with learning by attending the 2014 Chelsea Flower show and a one year garden centre management course at Wisley Gardens in England. “The opportunity to learn and travel at the same time; that’s a real bonus.”

Eliza Whalley

2013 NZ Recreation Association’s (Parks and Gardens) Young Amenity Horticulture second place getter (replaces Laurence Speedy)

Amenities finalist Liza Whalley was aware of the NZ Recreation Association’s Young Amenity Horticulturist competition but hadn’t considered entering it until she was asked to judge the Amenity section within the 2012 competition. When the committee realised that she was under 30 and therefore eligible, they suggested that she focus on entering the competition. Liza duly entered, and placed a worthy second.

Equipped with this competitive experience she entered again this year.  While she found the two days inspiring, she placed second by a small margin of points to Laurence Speedy, who won the competition. “I was struggling with flu during the competition so was relieved when Laurence Speedy won,” says Liza.

Liza is a collections specialist for Downers, a company that contracts to Hutt City Council in Wellington.  She manages the 13 ½ hectare Percy Scenic reserve as well as three glass houses of native alpine plants that were donated by Tony Druce and Arnold Dench, two of this country’s foremost botanists . The challenge? “We’re at sea level and our weather patterns and conditions are very different different from being up a mountain,” she explains.

Liza sees that her work as a gardener as “alot more than pulling weeds”.  In addition to her work for the reserve, Liza is also a Primary ITO workplace assessor providing amenity training to apprentices; she has a full time apprentice training with her for 6 month modules. She says that the best part of her day is watching her apprentices; “I feed on their enthusiasm as they discover and learn”.

“One thing about being in love with your job is that you have to work hard on life balance,” Liza explains.  With her ‘workplace’ only 2ks down the road from her home, she is often seen walking her dogs along its boundaries.  The other balance finds her trail bike riding and travelling within NZ to stay in touch with her and Liza’s partner’s families who live at opposite ends of the islands. The couple have also travelled abroad, and have a 6 week trip to South America planned for 2014.

Coming from an orcharding/market gardening family, with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Horticulture, and Certificate in Floristry, Liza believes it’s in her nature to make things grow.
She’s enthusiastically preparing for the 2013 Young Horticulturist of the Year competition. She says that the most important plan for her is to have a plan “A,B,C,D , E and X. It’s all about planning and flexibility. To be honest, it’s an honour to go and represent my industry and make them proud of me. I know that recognition is very important in this business.”

Matt Fox

Winner of the 2013 Young Viticulturist of the Year

Matt Fox is hoping to copy his predecessor Braden Crosby and become the second winemaker in a row to take home the ‘Young Horticulturist of the Year’ title.

Fresh from winning the Moore Stephens Markham Young Viticulturist of the Year competition, Matt says that he entered to test and benchmark himself within the winemaking industry. He believes that if he can find his weaknesses he can work on them to develop strengths.

Matt was one of the four finalists who had competed in the nationals before, and, even with their previous experience, only a point separated first and second place getter.

With hardly time to raise a celebratory glass, Matt went straight into a planning seminar with the other five finalists for the AGMARDT Market Innovation Project, a written project within the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition.

Matt hopes that some of the skills that he used in the Young Viticulturist competition can be applied to the Young Horticulturist of the Year. These include the public speaking and performing general tasks that cover multiple industries.

“I can see there’s going to be alot of sleepless nights, and it’s going to be challenging, but I’m looking forward to it,” says Matt.

As vineyard manager for DW Briant’s Glencoe Vineyards in Gisborne, Matt’s responsible for the day to day running of the business, organising all field operations and communicating with the wine companies that they supply. The family owned business has customers in Gisborne, Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Auckland.

Matt has a bachelor of viticulture and wine science degrees. The four year, double degree has “cut down the time to climb the corporate ladder”, explains Matt. “These days you need a tertiary education, it’s what the industry look for.”

He doesn’t see time for much else but work and preparation for the Young Horticulturist of the Year, although with a wedding planned for late January 2014, the travel portion of the competition prize holds some appeal.

“We’re both aware of the prize, but you gain so much more than just the travel,” he says. Recognition within the viticulture and the wider horticulture industry, as well as networking opportunities are a significant attraction for Matt. 

A seasoned traveller, Matt’s been working as a winemaker between the northern and southern hemispheres, taking in Australia, Canada and France over the past two years.

“I’ll never know everything, but I want to try and learn as much as I can.”

Matt appreciates the support from his parents, family and fiancé, as well as from the industry.


Kelly Jean Kerr - Winner 2013

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