A team effort

Although lockdown has made Marian Hirst’s blueberry business more challenging to run, it’s also made her appreciate why she loves the job. 

It’s blueberry harvest time in Hawke’s Bay but the lockdown has meant a major reshuffle in approach.

“We’re an essential workforce, but we’ve pared everything back to the minimum. We’ve allowed people who would have been at risk to step back. For example, in our blueberry packhouse we have quite a few mature ladies who have retired from other industries, and they are a vulnerable group. So, we’ve narrowed it down to our core team. My sons are helping pack blueberries right now and I’m handling the deliveries – so we’re trying to decrease the risk as much as possible.”

Marian and her partner Graham manage an award-winning 40ha pip fruit and blueberry operation in Longlands, Hastings. She’s responsible for the blueberry side of the business which is an important part of the business’ diversification strategy. She’s also in charge of HR, administration and compliance across the business which has 9 permanent employees and a seasonal workforce of up to 100, including RSE workers from Vanuatu.

Marian says the lockdown has reinforced the importance of relationships to their business. “It’s made me realise that the biggest reward for me managing this business has been watching the people I love working with, grow and take that next level of opportunity. That has been a huge motivator for me.” That investment in people over the years is paying dividends now.

The challenge now is to continue the harvest and get the fruit sold, she says. “The good thing is we are small compared to some of the large corporates so we are able to be light on our feet and make changes. On the blueberry side of the business we are keeping things ticking along. We’re lucky to still be able to deliver blueberries into our local supermarkets. We said on Facebook that we are working hard to keep supplying, and that’s what we are doing. Our customers know it’s a family business and I think it raises people’s spirits that we are doing everything we can to keep those berries going into store.”

With a reduced team, Marian and her partner continue to put in long hours on the farm and they’re mindful of the need to look after themselves. Structure and space are the key to a well-functioning ‘family bubble’ says Marian.

“What we are doing is making sure we all have some space at home to do our own thing. One son is a gamer, so we make sure that he has time and space to do that and another son is more active and likes to do more on orchard and physical work so we are giving him a lot of opportunities to do that.. At the moment my husband is working long hours, but he likes TV so we will often leave him to watch his shows and de-stress when he needs it. It’s about giving people their space.”

As a farming Mum looking after the needs of a whole household as well as running a business, Marian realised some time ago about the importance of setting aside time for herself.

“You’ve got to be kind to yourself as well as looking after your family and your team. Our foremen and whole team need me to be well.”

“My husband and sons are into squash but that’s not my thing. However a few years ago, I realised I enjoyed weight training. It’s been a good way to mix with people outside the industry. The other positive thing is seeing your body change. It’s such a personal journey. I think with the increase in muscle and strength, your mental strength improves too. I love it.”

“I’m struggling a bit with the lockdown, but my trainer has sent out a challenge to us each week that you can do at home. It’s tailored to each person and there’s a WhatsApp group – so credit to them.  I’m doing the challenge at home around work commitments.”

One of her tips for managing pressure during lockdown is to choose a single, reliable source of industry information. “In the first couple of weeks my inbox was overflowing with varied messages from all over the place. We decided there and then to only take industry advice. Both the apple industry and blueberry industry have been amazing. They are giving us clear leadership which is all I want from them – the facts and compliance. It’s taken a lot of stress out of my inbox because I’m choosing one source of information.”

Despite the long hours Marian remains energised and optimistic.

“What’s driving me right now is trying to keep this business alive delivering apples and blueberries but also looking after our team. Getting through this as a business means considering other people’s households, not just your own. Everyone’s got their home and their bubble, and we are counting on their bubble to keep our bubble safe. We’ve had to reduce our blueberry team to keep people safe, but I’ve had two beautiful texts this morning from them saying that their wage subsidies had gone in, thanking us and sending their love. That’s gold really.”

Farmstrong is a rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and farming families live well to farm well. To find out what works for you and “lock it in”, check out our farmer-to-farmer videos, stories and tips on www.farmstrong.co.nz



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