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Seeds of success

Seeds of success
John McKay stands in a field of Chinese Cabbage being grown near Methven. PHOTO CLAIRE INKSON

In 1993, South Pacific Seeds NZ (SPSNZ) managing director John McKay began a journey into the hybrid seed business that would change seed production in New Zealand forever.

A pioneer from the outset, McKay began small-scale hybrid seed production on his farm in Methven, Mid Canterbury.

In partnership with South Pacific Seed Australia, that business has grown to a thriving enterprise on the outskirts of Methven township.

SPSNZ now employs 58 staff and produces nearly 500 hybrid vegetable seed crops from 230 contracted farmers.

“We grow around 14 types of vegetable seed.

“We try to grow everything we can in New Zealand.

“We can’t grow watermelon or cucumber; it’s too cold.”

Radishes comprise a large portion of seed production, as well as Chinese Cabbage and Bok Choy.

The secret to success is delivering quality, McKay says.

“If you grow a field of wheat, you harvest it and put it in the silo, and if it is really good, someone will buy it straight away.

“If it’s a bit weather damaged, someone will buy it later in the season and feed it to their cattle.

“But in the hybrid seed business, if it’s not perfect, there is no market.”

To ensure quality, SPSNZ has a unique hands-on approach right through the seed production chain, from planting and harvesting to seed cleaning and sorting.

“We do a bit of land leasing, but that is usually for new varieties or varieties that we know are difficult.

“But nearly all land is owned by the farmer, and we make a contract with the farmer to help them grow the seeds.

“We’re quite involved in the process; it’s all about not failing.”

SPSNZ advises farmers throughout the growing process and can supply specialised machinery for small and difficult crops.

“When we started nearly 30 years ago, Canterbury farmers didn’t have any equipment for row cropping, inter-crop cultivating or inter-row spraying, so we had to get the equipment to do it.”

Once harvested, the seed goes through a series of machines that clean, dry, and sort the seed by size and colour.

If customers request it, the seed is coated with colour and fungicide.

When so much can go wrong, and with no way to know if a seed is ‘good’ at the time of purchase, this dedication to quality has allowed SPSNZ to build solid relationships with global export markets.

“That’s where trust comes in,” McKay said.

The factory floor at SPSNZ is sparkling clean, and the vibe among the workers is efficient and cheerful, an environment McKay has fostered from the beginning.

Initially, getting staff in the seed cleaning facility was difficult, as the job had a reputation for being dusty and dirty, but that has changed, McKay said.

“We have some great young people now that are enjoying taking up that challenge and making sure the place is like a hospital, really clean.”

“They are doing a good job, and they get to meet customers.”

After two years of employment at SPSNZ, staff are invited to have a small shareholding in the company, which gives them a sense of ownership, McKay said.

“I want to make sure everyone has a pleasant job.”

By Claire Inkson