Bold initiative taking on apprentices in uncertain time

Apprentice horticulturists (from left) Anina Swart, Bryony Anderson and Suede Horsham check over...
Apprentice horticulturists (from left) Anina Swart, Bryony Anderson and Suede Horsham check over some young native plants at employer and trainer Blue Mountain Nurseries, Tapanui, last week. PHOTO: RICHARD DAVISON
A bold staffing move while emerging from lockdown last year has paid dividends for a West Otago grower.

Blue Mountain Nurseries owners Chris and Rebecca Hughes said "eyebrows were raised" when they announced plans to take on at least two apprentice horticulturists in June last year, as a near three-month-long Covid-19 lockdown loosened.

In the end, the busy Tapanui business had taken on a total of five apprentices, Mrs Hughes said, although two of those five apprentices had since moved on.

"I think the [initial] response was slightly incredulous.

"It seemed a risk taking on so many apprentices at once coming out of a lockdown, but we knew from past experience that offering training towards a nationally recognised qualification supports retention [and] keeps people connected with the workplace.

"As with any plan, it’s not turned out quite the way we expected, but we’re very happy with our three ongoing apprentices, and wouldn’t hesitate to take on more, given the right candidates," Mrs Hughes said.

One of the original intake was South African-born Anina Swart, who came to New Zealand in 2019.

Miss Swart was already working at the nursery when the opportunity to start working and learning as an apprenticeship arose.

"I was already working here in dispatch, enjoying it, and just thought I’d like to see the other side of the business.

"I’d say I’m more practically minded, but the bookwork is OK.

"Horticulture is hard work but, at the end of the day, you get to see things through from seedling to dispatch which is very satisfying."

Mrs Hughes said Covid-19 restrictions had produced mixed effects on the business, presenting both some challenges and opportunities.

"We’re still operating off the back foot. Plants have very specific windows of opportunity for propagation — miss those and there will not be a crop for sale possibly for three years, until numbers can be bulked up again.

"It’s like asking a farmer not to put the bull out and expecting to get calves the following year — we’re plant farmers."

Deficits remained in certain skill-specific areas of staffing, such as propagation, which would usually be filled by overseas employees.

More positively, the online arm of the business had been growing.

"Traffic on the website is up by 90% on this time last year.

"We’re in the process of exploring production and retail software platforms that will support that growth."

Growing native plants for riparian planting was also a growth area.

"We’ve been working closely with the Pomahaka Water Care Group providing a wide selection of trees, grasses, natives, flaxes and hedging grown for local conditions. To meet demand, a new department has been created within the nursery."

Mrs Hughes said this tied in well with the business’ ambitions to operate sustainably and meet environmental targets.

"We’d like to be greening New Zealand, one garden and farm at time."

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