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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
"So I've got a lot of involvement in the grain and seed
industry, and I am now getting more involved in the vegetable
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.
Page last updated/revised 051000
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page