The Whangarei Growers' Market is upping the ante as plans to form a company and export produce to Auckland take root.
Co-founders Robert Bradley and Murray Burns say the market is so big it can no longer be run on an 'ad hoc' basis. The new company - Whangarei Growers' Market Association Ltd, will help small to medium-sized Northland growers eventually gain a slice of the much-larger Auckland market.
Established 13 years ago, the market generates approximately $4 million each year and attracts between 4500 to 6000 shoppers every Saturday morning. It is a 'David vs Goliath' success story that has enabled growers - once on the brink of ruin - to sell direct to the public.
They have cut out the middleman and believe their industry could play an important role in Northland's economic recovery.
The pair established the market in 1998 because supermarkets stopped dealing with the auction process or small to medium sized Northland growers, says Robert.
"They basically nailed us to the floor, it was sink or swim so we decided to take them on.
"We were blacklisted by the supermarkets... in fact for a while some of the growers were selling under assumed names or dropping produce off early so it could be sold on behalf.
"You've got to understand in those days this was a new concept and we also faced obstacles from various industry bodies who tried to stop us because they felt threatened as it was something different.
"And although the Council was supportive it took us over a year to convince them that we weren't going to be fly-by-nighters, we were serious."
Today more than100 growers supply the market and between 30 to 35 depend on it for their livelihoods with 40 to 50 pallets of produce being shifted on the day and another 10 to 20 during the week.
Both men say the formation of a company is the next step for the market and means measures can be put in place to preserve founding principles and explore potential opportunities.
"What happens here is nobody is allowed to make money out of selling stall spaces but we have a lot of expenses, the main reason we decided on that was the minute somebody has got an incentive or their money is tied to the number of stalls...
they start letting in stalls that should have never been there in the first place.
"The mix of the stalls is critical to public acceptance and the people of Whangarei have taken ownership of this market and we have no qualms throwing people out on a principle that's no problem because it doesn't affect us financially."
The company is being set up on a two-class share axis with voting and non-voting shares.
To vote you have to have a stall in the market for at least eight months of the year, says Robert.
The constitution will also not allow the company to borrow or lend money.
"We don't want a situation happening here where people have hijacked it, lent money to themselves and basically looted it.
"The company needs to accumulate reserves and from our point of view we also need a structure because in time we can see ourselves exporting produce to Auckland and I could drop dead today and Murray could drop dead tomorrow.
"The main thing we want to do is preserve our philosophy we have been doing this for 13 years and because we know what we are doing on the surface looks like it's easy but we've got a formula that really works, it works for the growers and it works for the public."
Most of growers run family-based operations with the knowledge passed on through the generations but Murray says another 100 odd people would be employed to plant, pick and pack.
He says the possibilities for further employment are real because there are more than 1 million people sitting one hundred miles away.
"That is our logical expansion, we'd like to sell more local produce to more Whangarei people... we'd like to see places like Otangarei - they could struggle to visit here but maybe Maori Health Providers could come to the market buy produce and distribute it.
"We'd like to see the Whangarei hospital buying their food here and we'd like to see the health professionals sending their patients here.
"You know, we don't think we have even started providing affordable food to people. It's fresh, it's local and it's cheaper - which is why, as a grower, it's frustrating at times how little fruit and vegetables people eat.
"You only have to do the math... there are 70,000 people in our area and people should eat 400 grams of fruit and vegetables a day... multiply that over a year and it's a lot of tonnage and we're not selling that, so there is the potential."