Berry growers branch out

By Helen Twose

Entrepreneurs' Challenge finalist reaps reward from frozen fruit and icecream

A run-down pick-your-own orchard in Omaha was the starting point for Robert and Shannon Auton.
A run-down pick-your-own orchard in Omaha was the starting point for Robert and Shannon Auton.

When Robert Auton hung up the corporate attire for a life as a blueberry orchardist he and wife Shannon had a seven-year plan.

Three years in he was already looking at opportunities to grow beyond the fresh fruit market.

Nearly a decade on and sales of frozen berries and icecream has eclipsed the fresh fruit side of his Oob Organic berry business.

More than half the company's turnover is frozen berries exported to supply Woolworths supermarkets in Australia.

Auton, a former investment banker, began growing blueberries in 2001 after research and talks with exporters revealed a demand for the berry's antioxidant punch.

A run-down pick-your-own berry orchard in Omaha became the starting point for the venture, despite not ticking the boxes for proximity to an airport or labour force.

"It was neither of those things but the lifestyle made up for it. I took one look at the beach and thought, 'This is all right'."

Business has boomed including a burgeoning sideline into organic icecream and sorbets that were originally made in the orchard shop but the existing equipment couldn't cope so they invested in an icecream factory.

The fresh berries may be a small part of the business now, but they are crucial in getting consumers and stores introduced to the brand's range of products.

Business growth means the organic berries, which now include strawberries and raspberries, are sourced from growers in the Waikato and Chile.

While Auton doesn't miss banking, the shift to growing blueberries has not been without its stresses.

"Everything was going swimmingly well until you start getting big and then you have other pressures. The growth pressures certainly can be quite stressful.

"I have to be honest about that. It has been a little bit tough the last couple of years but the wins are worth it when things start going right."

One win Auton would like to notch up is the University of Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs' Challenge.

Oob Organic has made it to the final five contestants and early next month will find out if it has successfully grabbed a share of $1 million in growth funding. Auton is coy on where the money would be directed, but revealed it is earmarked for a specific project still in the concept stage.

- NZ Herald

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