Stu Weston, CEO of post-harvest business Apata, has been part of the kiwifruit industry since 1991. An episode of burnout years ago still informs how he works today. Farmstrong asked him to pass on his insights about how to manage when you’re feeling ‘under the pump.’  

How did you get into the industry?

I fell into it. I was broke, needed to make rent and had no warrant for the car, so I picked up a labouring job in a kiwifruit packhouse in South Auckland. I ended up staying for 10 years! I’d grown up in urban Auckland, but I absolutely loved the work. Over time, I picked up other roles and eventually moved to the Bay of Plenty where 85% of kiwifruit is grown. At the tender age of 33, I was CEO of one of the post-harvest businesses here.

We manage over 300 hectares of orchards and we’re developing another 250 hectares, so we’ve got a lot going on. The main activity is the packing, cool storage and export of kiwifruit.

What do you enjoy about the job?

I love working with people and this industry is very collaborative. Every day you run across such a variety. It’s like three industries wrapped up in one – horticulture, manufacturing and warehousing. I love that breadth.

What are the main pressures at the moment?

Right now, it’s the volatile environment caused by Covid. In the last month, hundreds of staff have gone down with Omicron. It’s a guess who’s going to be there every day. Trying to make do with the labour you’ve got is really challenging when you’ve got 200 clients with 15 million trays of fruit to harvest. These are unprecedented challenges that we are facing as an industry. It’s a whole new level of stretch. You’re constantly juggling balls all day, every day.

That sounds stressful. What sort of toll does that take?

Well, because I’m no stranger to stress and have been through some dark days, I’m acutely aware of the early signs of stress and I’m careful to manage that. As the leader of a large organisation, I realise the best service I can be to my shareholders, staff and clients is to stay cool, calm and collected and turn up at work feeling rested and clear of mind.

What strategies do you use?

I’ve learnt not to burn energy on stuff I can’t control. I just look after what I can control. For the uncontrollable elements, I simply buckle up and enjoy the ride.

What about workload?

It’s possible in this industry to work so many hours that your head is just in a fog. There was a time when I was younger that I worked 17 hours day. Now I go home after 12. Rest is vital. There’s always something to do in my job. I’ll prioritise what needs to get done and then go home and rest.

What about busy times like harvest?

Harvest time is crazy, it consumes you. My friends and family realise that during harvest, Stu disappears for three months. I’ll stay in contact with close friends, but that’s it. I make sure I don’t over-commit my time to conserve energy.

What about the basics – eating, sleep, exercise?

I’m big on exercise and careful about what I’m eating. When you’re young you can thrash that engine all you like, but when you’re older, exercise, rest and diet are important to prevent you descending into that fog.

How do you avoid bringing work worries home?

I give myself a little debrief on the way home before I walk into the house. If I go in wound up like a steel spring, I’m not giving my family what they deserve. So, as I’m driving home, I’m letting go of any work anxieties, tasks that have not been completed or frustration about things not going as planned. And if I get home and I’m still not completely there, then I’ll go for a walk in the orchard.

How do you make sure you get a decent night’s sleep?

I treat home as a refuge from work. Once I’m home, I’m off duty. I find it helps train your mind to let go of anxieties and frustrations and rest. If you’re about to go to bed and you keep checking work emails, sure as eggs something is going to wind you up and you’ll be awake at two in the morning.

You mentioned some dark days. Tell us about that.

I was a young guy, 29, working incredibly long hours with a new wife and baby. I never adjusted my work pattern to accommodate my life. I remember collapsing at work. I thought I was having a stroke. The room was spinning. I was in a bad way, purely because I’d just kept going and going. It was a smaller business and I was chief cook and bottle washer, continually resolving problems. I got trundled off to the doctor. When I told her the hours I was doing, she said that amount of work was so unhealthy, there was nothing she could prescribe to help!

So what happened?

She sent me to a cognitive therapist. He kept asking me why I was working the way I was. It was like peeling an onion. We finally got to the root of it – deep down I had a need to prove to everyone just how hard-working I was. He asked me if that sounded logical. I laughed and replied, ‘that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!’

But that’s what was going on in my head. I was so concerned about the welfare of the business, and what people thought of me, that I was killing myself! That was a ‘wow’ moment. Since then, I’ve come to see that there are a surprising number of people like that.

How did you recover?

I had to learn how to enjoy things outside of work again. I ended up going to the public pool to swim. It felt so foreign and bizarre at first taking time out of my business to do that. I had a very low expectations of enjoyment beforehand, but when I did it, it actually felt nice! It took those baby steps to introduce something else in my life and find some balance.

Now I consciously make time for activities outside work. I recently bought a motorbike. One of my favourite things is to go out for a ride where I’m in my own little world. It feels marvellous. When I’m on my mower in my orchard block or riding my motorbike no one can reach me. Those moments are precious and really good for you.

How do you make sure you don’t fall back into old habits?

My wife is my sentinel, if you like. She recognises if I’m falling back into my old ways and will call me on it. The other thing is self-awareness – knowing the tell-tale signs that you’re ‘under the pump’. For me, it’s when I start forgetting things. I’ll go out to the car and I’ve forgotten the keys or my phone. Once you know your markers, you can do something about it.

Did you ever consider another career?

I could probably have found an easier job, but, if I’m really honest, I’m an adrenalin junkie. The theme song to my life could be ACDC’s Thunderstruck. I really like the high-octane nature of our industry. I’m never happier than when I’m standing in the middle of it all, cranking it out.

So, what’s your message to people experiencing similar challenges?

The fundamental truth is that you can only control what you can control. There’ll be times when things are going wrong, when you’ve just got to ask yourself, what’s the worst that can really happen? If it’s beyond your control, put it back in its box and don’t let it continually play on your mind. If you don’t do that, you’re just adding more straws to the camel’s back.

What if you’ve got a big day ahead of you?

Look at the big picture. Decide what’s important and what’s nice to have and only do what’s important. That’ll help you sift through everything that’s coming at you. All these things may be urgent, but are they important? Take a step back and prioritise.

What about stress related to production targets and results?

If things outside your control conspire against what you were hoping to deliver, then that’s ok. Don’t beat yourself up. We’ve all got operating objectives, but these aren’t ordinary times and not everything will be perfect. But these times will pass too. We’ll get through together. We always do.

Any other thoughts?

When you’re passionate about something, you just want to be the best at it. I know many kiwifruit growers feel like that and it’s a great thing … until it’s unhealthy.

I’m a highly competitive person too, a type A personality, but I literally nearly worked myself to death. I learnt the hard way that you have to look after yourself, otherwise you’re no use to anyone. That’s why I’m happy to share my story. If I can help one other person avoid that abyss, then I’ll put myself out there and share it.

Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and growers live well to farm well. To find out what else could work for you and ‘lock it in’, visit

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