Seven years ago Tony and Michelle Boswell took over ownership of Windermere Berry Farm, and in that time they have completely turned the business around.
July is the “quiet” month in the year which is why Tony has time to sit down and discuss his business, the rapid rate of growth it has been through, and plans for the future.
“At Windermere our first objective is flavour,” says Tony.
“We believe we have hands down the best flavoured strawberries in the country thanks to Whanganui’s amazing climate, our spring water source and the fact we pick when the strawberries are very ripe.”
Windermere’s strawberries have a Brix level of 14, while the wider industry in New Zealand aims for above seven. The Brix level measures the amount of sugar in a strawberry, the greater the amount of sugar the more flavoursome the strawberry will be.
Windermere currently employs 15 staff on a full time basis with up to 100 employed during the picking season. As the nature of the work is seasonal Tony is always looking for pickers and has found that older pickers are sometimes the fastest.
“It’s amazing really, some of our fastest pickers are in their sixties and seventies, and on top of that they are reliable and keen,” says Tony.
“Whanganui has an ageing population so to cater for those workers is really important when recruiting. About 75% of our strawberries are grown on tables under cover, so it’s a much more pleasant environment while also easier on the body.”
The onsite café also attracts seasonal workers as it is only open six months of the year. This means it can be hard to recruit and retain staff. Tony is looking for a new café manager as the incumbent of five years recently moved to Wellington.
“I am working with businesses in Ruapehu to see if we could find someone who is keen to work the winter months there and summer months here,” says Tony.
“What could be better than spending the winter on the mountain and summer in the warm climes of Whanganui!”
The Windermere café has been a huge hit with Whanganui locals, tourists and those looking for a pit-stop as they travel through the region.
“Over summer we are incredibly busy which means we have to work really hard to provide great service,” says Tony.
“We like to provide a fantastic experience for customers while they are here with pick your own berries and feeding the alpacas to keep the kids entertained.
“We have also asked a consultant to come in pre-season to look at our systems and find ways for us to do things faster in the café.”
Windermere Berry Farm’s ethos is to work in a sustainable manner wherever possible. Tony believes that at the moment Windermere are the only growers to recycle their own water.
“We set up the system a couple of years ago which while costly in monetary terms, was incredibly important,” says Tony.
“It is our preference to recycle the water rather than leaching into the soil or into waterways, as a whole we need to think about what goes into the ground, how to use it and where it comes from.”
Windermere are also gradually introducing electric carts to replace their ATVs and from this season all punnets will be made from recycled, recyclable and biodegradable plastic.
“Our sustainability is a big part of our brand so these changes are priceless in their importance to improving our environment.”
One of the challenges Windermere has faced is distribution and logistics. Whanganui lacks the infrastructure required for quick and easy distribution throughout the country which means produce is usually sent to Palmerston North’s distribution hub first.
“While it is frustrating that we need to send our produce to Palmerston North, the facilities there are fantastic,” says Tony.
“We can ensure our produce is on shelves across the central and lower North Island one day after picking, with Auckland and Christchurch the day after that.”
To offset Windermere’s distribution challenges, and to enable the ripest of berries, Tony is currently working on plans to build a chilled pack house on-site. It is an innovative approach, not yet achieved in New Zealand, and Tony believes it will increase the shelf life of the berries.
The international demand for strawberries and blueberries in particular is insatiable and Tony and his team are investing in their business to meet that demand.
“If we grow it, the world will eat it.”
That said, Tony believes there is huge potential for growth in the market in Whanganui.
“Whanganui has the climate, has the land, we just need the will,” says Tony.
“When using modern intensive practices a five hectare block of land will be profitable. Agriculture land converted to horticulture increases in value to four times the value per hectare.”
A further benefit of a larger berry or horticulture industry in Whanganui would be an improved infrastructure around it.
“Distribution infrastructure would improve, employment opportunities in the district would abound and a renowned industry would be a real selling point for Whanganui.”
Tony is gearing up for another busy summer at Windermere. The berry farm and café are a fantastic day out, so if you have not experienced Windermere yet, make sure you do so this season. Delighting in Windermere’s berry fruit ice cream cannot be beaten on a hot summer’s day.
In the mean time, if you know of anyone who might be interested in an exciting cafe managers role, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.