The first 20 employees have been hired for a major new venture which promises to be a game-changer for a Northland town long starved of jobs.
The Ngāpuhi men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 50-plus, are the first tranche of workers who will build a hydroponic berryfruit-growing operation at Ngāwhā, just east of Kaikohe.
The berry farm, where harvesting is due to start by Christmas, is expected to have 80 permanent employees within six to 12 months and another 120 casual workers in picking season.
And that's just the start — the berry farm is one element of a business park which will include an avocado oil producer, a prefabricated housing company, and a plant converting waste into fertiliser and biomethane fuel.
Among those signing up on Monday to help build 10ha of growing tunnels was Anthony Tito, who worked as a steel fixer in Australia before coming home five months ago.
He hasn't had a job since and has only recently become eligible for the jobseeker benefit so money has been tight.
''I'm blessed. This means I'll earn some money so I can stay and live with my family here,'' he said.
The new business, Kaikohe Berryfruit, is a three-way partnership between Ngāpuhi Asset Holding Company, the business division of Te Rūnanga-Ā-Iwi O Ngāpuhi; Onyx Capital, which owns Maungatapere Berries near Whangārei; and Far North Holdings, the commercial arm of Far North District Council. The Ministry of Social Development is also on board.
The first workers signed up at the rūnanga's headquarters in Kaikohe on Tuesday and are due to start on March 15.
Interest in the venture has made a lie of claims that Northlanders don't want to work — about 160 people attended the initial jobs hui hosted by the rūnanga and more than 60 applied for work.
Babe Kapa, the rūnanga's general manager, said the berryfruit venture was ''really, really exciting for Ngāpuhi''.
''It's going to transform the area, not just in terms of jobs for pickers through to management, but in terms of the economic benefits for the region and the flow-on effect that you get from people getting up each day with mana because they're going to work, their kids going off to school knowing Mum or Dad or Uncle or Aunty has gone to do their mahi. We've been wanting and needing something big for our people and our community, and this is it.''
Kapa said Maungatapere Berries was a family-oriented business that lifted people up. Co-owner Patrick Malley had told the Kaikohe hui a criminal record wouldn't hurt someone's chances of getting a job, as long as they were honest about any past raruraru (trouble).
''He said he wants people who show they can be trusted, and who want a job and want to work. Our whānau really respected that,'' he said.
Up to 30 people would be hired to build the growing tunnels. Stage two would involve planting and stage three harvesting. A packhouse and coolstore would also be built.
Kapa said the workers had been hired on fixed-term contracts until construction was complete in late August but there were opportunities for them to progress through the various stages, and eventually into senior positions.
Hone Rako, of Kaikohe, is currently working at an avocado orchard at Tautoro.
He enjoyed the job but, as a casual employee, he didn't work — or get paid — anytime it rained.
''It's a good job but I'm only working two or three days a week and it's not paying the bills. I reckon it's going to get worse [due to climate change] but this new job will be stable. I'm looking forward to getting started.''
Many of Tuesday's successful applicants have to drive long distances to get to their current jobs in Waipapa or Whangārei.
Sam Neho, of Awaroa, commutes to Kamo to work as a groundsman. Taking the berry farm job will cut his daily driving time from 90 minutes to 20.
''It'll save me a lot of travelling, I'll have more money in my pocket, and it means I can be closer to my father-in-law,'' he said.
Ngāwhā Innovation and Enterprise Park is being developed by Far North Holdings on a former dairy farm off State Highway 12.
The original enticement for business tenants was low-cost electricity from Top Energy's nearby geothermal power plant, but it has evolved into a more visionary project with plans for a ''closed loop'' system in which the waste products of one business are the raw materials for another.
Other confirmed tenants at the park include Olivado, a Kerikeri-based company that is one of the world's leading producers of avocado oil; and house-building firm Modular Construction.
The previous Government pledged $19.5 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to pay for park infrastructure such as roads, earthworks, drainage and water storage.
While Kaikohe's soils are as good, if not better, than Kerikeri's, horticulture in the area has been held back by the lack of a reliable water supply.
That will be addressed by the nearby Matawii water reservoir being built by Te Tai Tokerau Water Trust with a Provincial Growth Fund loan.