Bahai News - No tears over poor onion season Thursday, May 11, 2000

No tears over poor onion season

by Howard Keene

This has been a rotten onion season for Tony and Afsaneh Howey of Timaru, but they are not crying about it.

While the Howeys have no control over low onion prices, the development of their arable farm has been exemplary.

So much so that they recently received the prestigious Farmers' Mutual Group Rural Excellence award, organised by the Royal Agricultural Society in Hamilton. To win they headed off six other regional finalists.

The award recognises that in three years on their own, the Howeys have developed a large successful cropping farm, and have been instrumental in establishing a commercial onion pack house in Washdyke, employing about 70 casual staff.

Tony Howey is a very busy man, but on a wet, grey day he finds time to fit in an hour to talk about the family and the farm.

Afsaneh came to New Zealand as a refugee from Iran 16 years ago. Like Tony, she is a follower of the Bahai'i Faith, whose members have been persecuted in Iran. They met in New Zealand through their involvement in Bahai'i, married, and now have three children.

On the day I visit Afsaneh is away teaching English to Asian students in Temuka.

Tony says that one of the main tenets of Bahai'i is that serving mankind equates to worship. This may have had some bearing on winning the award because the judges take community service into account.

He was brought up on the family farm at Waitohi in inland South Canterbury. After obtaining a degree at Lincoln he went on to work for Maori Affairs as an agricultural field officer before coming back to take over his father's share in the farming partnership.

From 1986 to 1996 he farmed in partnership with his brother, and they acquired various "bits and pieces of land" near Levels, north of Timaru.

During this time they were among the first to grow potatoes on the very light stony land on the Levels Plains. Tony had come across destoning technology on a 1992 Nuffield Scholarship to Britain which he was able to apply at home.

While the Temuka area had been growing potatoes for a century or more, the Levels area was considered too stony.

"This very light soil can produce yields of potatoes we didn't think possible. When the water and nutrients are monitored and applied accurately, the yields on that lighter country surpassed yields I'd ever heard of in New Zealand," he says.

In 1996 the partnership with his brother ended amicably. One of the catalysts was that Tony wanted to carry out further irrigation development. "It was a very good partnership, and it finished in a good year," he says.

Tony and Afsaneh now farm about 510ha of land in several blocks. They own about half the land, and lease about half.

The land has reliable water from the Opuha Dam via The Levels Irrigation Company (Tony is a director of both companies).

Onions and potatoes make up 45 per cent of the farm area, but produce about 80 per cent of the farm income. Other crops grown as break crops include wheat, ryegrass, fescue, vining peas, brassica seed, and barley. They also run some cattle and sheep.

Onions make a loss this year

Most of the potatoes are grown on contract for McCain Ltd at Washdyke to be made into frozen chips. All the onions are exported, and the Howeys are among the biggest onion growers in the South Island.

About 75 per cent of the onions are grown on a minimum price contract, which this year has proved much better than the free price.

Even so they have made a loss on onions this year, and Tony Howey is considering ploughing lower grade ones back into the soil. "It would have been much better this year if we had not grown onions," he says.

The top grade onions go to Europe and Japan, and lower grade ones to South-east Asia. Oversupply on the European market seems to be the cause of low prices this year.

Last year the onions broke even, and the year before made a profit. Despite the uncertainty he says they are in it for the long haul, having made "huge investment" in onions, including a $500,000 curing shed.

Traditionally arable farming has been a seasonal business, but Tony Howey says it is becoming more of a year-round effort. From the beginning of August through to November they are planting. This is followed by a period of "flat out" irrigating, fertilising, and spraying. From Christmas to mid-May they are "absolutely flat out" harvesting.

He says onions and potatoes complement each other well. Onions are planted and harvested before potatoes, and a lot of machinery can be used for both operations. The Washdyke packhouse is used for both onions and potatoes. It is a separate business, financed by the Howeys, two other farmers, and an exporter.

Tony Howey is also involved in the Washdyke seed company, Seedlands, and has been involved with Federated Farmers and the vegetable growers federation.

"So I've got a lot of involvement in the grain and seed industry, and I am now getting more involved in the vegetable industry."

With such a big operation things can often get frenetic and tense. "I'm glad you didn't come yesterday," he says. "We had three calls about machinery breakdowns, plus an export load of onions that wasn't cured properly."

Tony Howey believes the award success can be put down to the team approach of the staff. They employ five permanent staff who are "very dedicated and work long hours".

"One of my plans is to try to involve the staff in the business, and make it more of a career path for them.

"I feel humble, genuinely humble, at this award because I believe there are a lot of technically more competent farmers around than me," he says.

©Copyright 2000, The Christchurch Press Company Ltd.

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