Horticulture right fit for new leader

El Pedregal Orchard manager Whitney Conder, of Alexandra, has been elected on to the Women in...
El Pedregal Orchard manager Whitney Conder, of Alexandra, has been elected on to the Women in Horticulture executive committee. She is pictured with spaniel Dash.PHOTO: MARY-JO TOHILL
Whitney Conder climbs off her hydraladder and gives her spaniel Dash a pat.

It is likely that he has been her only companion on this winter’s day, as she prunes the 6ha cherry block single-handed.

It is the type of resilience that has earned her a seat at the table of the Women in Horticulture executive committee.

Mrs Conder, who manages El Pedregal Orchard in Earnscleugh, was selected from 13 candidates New Zealand-wide for the role, and was one of four new members elected.

She already heads Central Otago Women in Horticulture and has been involved in the industry for 18 years.

Her appointment comes from an initiative in 2017 that sought to address the reasons for the low number of women in positions of leadership, and to set up an organisation that would encourage and support them to take up greater roles in the horticulture industry.

"It’s been amazing. The more I think about it [the appointment] the more amazing it seems. I’m so chuffed."

She was in the process of learning more about what the role would entail.

"I think it will be much the same as I do in the leadership role here, to create an environment where women feel connected [with others in the industry]."

The new role was a high point in a particularly traumatic past four years for the 37-year-old, who has farming roots in Central Southland, was educated at Waitaki Girls’ in Oamaru and at Otago University and came to Central Otago as a fruit picker.

In 2017, she and her husband Hayden Conder, of Alexandra, lost their first child William, who was born prematurely at 27 weeks.

The following year she was able to have a second son, George, who while still premature at 33 weeks "came into the world rip, s**t and bust and has been the same ever since".

"Having him shifted my focus. I had an outlook shift. I realised if I want to do anything, anything can happen, and that’s never been more apparent than in the last four years."

Having previously worked for nearby Dunstan Hills, a year after George’s birth she took on the management of El Pedregal near Clyde, and apart from the picking and packing which is done by contractors, she does all the work herself.

"I have a staff of one, me. I work what hours I need to get jobs done and timings right. I manage six hectares of cherries, on both centre-leader and UFO-tree training systems. I have around 1000 vines of pinot noir and pinot gris grapes and 130 feijoa trees which do surprisingly well down here in our Central Otago climate."

The hardest thing was getting back into work after maternity leave.

"Leaving them with someone while getting back into your job is hard, even harder when your journey of even getting them in the first place hit every bump it could with two traumatic pregnancies. I had to make sure I was being fair to my family and myself, but also continuing to still take part in something I love."

The executive role was not about "I’m a woman in horticulture — hear me roar", she said.

"It’s probably more about creating connections and inspiring youth and young people and bringing them into horticulture. That it’s not just a summer role, but a career path."

She had done most roles from field work to the packhouse and even office logistics.

Taking a break from orchard life in 2014, Mrs Conder worked for harvest solutions company Compac as an operator trainer, specialising in small fruit sorters, mostly cherry graders. The job took her to the United States, Canada, and South America. She also worked with apple growers in Hawke’s Bay as well as kiwifruit in the Bay of Plenty, and she had started 27 different cherry seasons for "someone/somewhere" in various parts of New Zealand.

As well as obtaining a bachelor of arts degree majoring in geography and tourism, Mrs Conder is a qualified beekeeper and has trained in Primary ITO’s national certificate in horticulture levels 3 and 4.

Horticulture was a career that she wished she had moved into 10 years earlier, just because of the sheer amount that she had had to learn as a manager and the personal growth involved.

"I’ve learned more about myself in the last two years than I have in 18 years."

The other three new executive members elected were Liarna White, of Jolarna kiwifruit in Gisborne and Opotiki, and avocados in Opotiki and Te Puke; Shayna Ward, of Te Mata Exports in Hawke’s Bay and Rachel Lynch, of Zespri kiwifruit at Mount Maunganui.



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