14 December 2022, NZ: A.S. Wilcox and Sons is seeking to increase consumption of vegetables while growing its people and fostering a strong work culture.
A fourth-generation family-owned and operated business, A.S. Wilcox and Sons grows potatoes, onions and carrots for both the domestic and international markets.
Wilcox has four main growing areas across the country. Northland provides the start of their early-season potatoes (Perlas), which benefit from limited frosts in the region. Pukekohe is the company’s headquarters, affectionately dubbed the “home farm”, with early spring production of potatoes, carrots, and onions in clay loam volcanic-rich soil. The soil is famous for producing long keeper onions.
Further south in Matamata, the good, free-draining soil with a sandy base, helps produce summer potatoes, carrots and onions. Carrots and winter potatoes are grown in Ohakune through the summer, after being planted out in October and November. Stored in the ground through winter, the carrots and potatoes are easy to dig from the volcanic ash soil. It’s the ideal region in North Island for washed Red Jacket potatoes, which love the winter alpine-like conditions.
They have a central packhouse at their Pukekohe site and operate a packhouse in Rakaia where they collaborate with growers in the mid-Canterbury region. Late-season potatoes, carrots and onion crops thrive in the productive soil and climate here.
Growing across these various geographical areas ensures a continuous supply of quality products. It also means that the crops are facing varied weather conditions across the different seasons.
Wilcox managing director, Kevin Wilcox, says 2022 had its share of weather-related impacts.
“The extremely dry period in parts of the North Island from the middle of December through to the middle of February put a lot of pressure on all three of our vegetable crops,” Kevin says. “Still, the significant impacts of weather events are a given in primary production. Vegetables are no different and I believe this is something that we, as growers, know to expect.”
There have been other variables to contend with in recent times too.
“Last year, the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted export freight with congested ports, labour shortages and reduced shipping lines,” Kevin says. “About 35 percent of our revenue is in export onions, sent via sea freight. Through 2022, not only were we a lot more expensive but we also couldn’t guarantee when our product would turn up. It probably has been the single biggest challenge for our business. Although some of the problems around export freight are easing up, this will most likely continue to be an issue in the year ahead.”
Despite such difficulties, encouraging people to eat more vegetables is key, says Kevin.
“Yes, there are a whole lot of challenges — regulatory, the changing environment, input costs, social licence issues and more, but ultimately, we are growing food for consumers and the reality is that as a nation, we aren’t eating enough vegetables. Improving consumption of nutritious vegetables, especially in New Zealand, is an important objective for us all.”
Ensuring their products are positioned to meet consumer needs is an integral part of their approach to achieving this goal.
“We are focussing on how we can make our products more relevant to the consumer and then continue to keep them relevant,” Kevin says. “Each vegetable must be approached differently in this regard. Say potatoes, for instance. From a health perspective many people are reducing the amount of carbohydrates they eat.
“We front the reality that potatoes are in fact carbohydrate-rich, but they are also a source of fibre and other vitamins and minerals, including protein. So, how do we adapt? We consider smaller potatoes (like Perlas or Piccolos), that are washed and more convenient to cook with.
Carrots are an opportunity area for the business too, Kevin says.
“We provide a product like Beta Bites, a snacking carrot that has a different taste profile and can be used (eaten raw, or cooked) with little to no prep work.”
Wilcox markets its Beta Bites as perfectly sized, deliciously sweet, genuine snackable carrots that are ready to crunch on at any time. It fits in well with the social licence aspect too, as a healthy snack alternative.
“The vegetable industry in particular is massively underinvested in promotion and marketing,” Kevin says. “The only significant major activity is price promotion. What signal does that send to the consumer? The industry (as a whole) must get better at telling our story and telling the story of our products. If we’re going to serve our customers and we want them to be excited about our products, then we had better be excited by them first.”
Kevin concedes that, “finding the money to invest in marketing and future technology can often be difficult for the industry, particularly with escalating costs overall. However, it can ultimately prove beneficial if we find a way to do it anyway.”
Wilcox recently invested in an onion peeling machine, allowing the business to increase productivity and redeploy staff to other areas when needed. The peeler also reduces food waste allowing Wilcox to use more of the crop.
“We support a high-wage economy and want to pay our people more” says Kevin. “So, we have to be better and we have to use technology to our advantage while engaging and training our people so we can afford to do that. It’s the labour cost per unit, not the labour cost per hour that’s important to us.”
Dean Langrell-Read, Wilcox’ marketing manager, says the company’s people-first focus is one of the reasons he loves working there.
“You feel valued and the feeling that you can make a difference is elevated because you really feel like you are a part of the same team. Wilcox has retained its family-business feel,” he says. “Good, honest and clear communication around expectations, successes and challenges, business goals, and more, has helped foster a healthy work culture.”
Operations manager, Simon Wilcox, says that work culture was evident during Covid-19, with the team putting in a “phenomenal effort” to keep operations running smoothly despite the uncertainties.
“Everyone was incredibly focused, determined to be at work and do a good job,” Simon says. “We had very low absenteeism.”
Kevin says Wilcox strives to be a values-led, purpose-driven organisation, and people – staff, customers, consumers and the community – are at the heart of the company’s purpose.
“Vegetable growing is often perceived as peasant farming,” Kevin says. “Yes, [it] can be muddy and dusty, hot and cold and mostly outdoors. However, it requires immense skill and can be a rewarding experience.
“As an industry, we can provide better growth opportunities for aspiring candidates by pursuing excellence, innovation, and progress.
“We want our staff to have meaningful careers and be proud of our business and their role in it, because here at Wilcox we believe in growing great produce – and people.”
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