By Jodi Bryant
Every Saturday before dawn, locals flock to the Whangarei Grower's Market to stock up on supplies while catching up with acquaintances in an entertaining, social setting. It's a true heart-of-the-community event, but the journey to get here has been a tumultuous one, involving nay-sayers, black-listing and suspected sabotage.
On its 20th anniversary, Jodi Bryant talks to the founders who fought through the obstacles to create what's been dubbed a 'David vs Goliath success story'.
It would seem the rest of the city is asleep as the headlights pierce the thick, swirling fog, while the lone vehicle makes its way into town.
But arriving at the Water St carpark in downtown Whangarei is like entering a whole new world. Lights flood the early morning darkness, revealing a bustling scene. Over the music ringing out from the coffee truck, is the constant low rumbling of wheels on gravel as shoppers of all ages go about their business pulling their carts behind them.
Gradually the veil of darkness lifts and the colourful array of produce and peoples' features become visible.
"G'morning. Bit chilly for this time of year isn't it?" Shoppers and stallholders, familiar with each other, call out cheery greetings as they pass.
Yes, this is the Whangarei Grower's Market and, at 5.45am, this place is alive.
But it wasn't always this way. Rewind 20 years ago this month and a local agriculturist couple were facing an uphill battle.
Meet Murray and Nicci Burns, two of the names behind Australasia's first and largest grower's market.
"It has been 21 years since we first started discussions with the council to get this up and running," reflects Nicci.
The couple were growing tomatoes and grew frustrated with the rigmarole of the supply system.
"The tomatoes were picked up from us on a Sunday and trucked to a central distribution unit in Auckland. Once they went through the system, they then trucked them back to the supermarket a week later. This was five minutes over the hill from our pack house, and put on the shelves the following Sunday. We had to deal with all the transport/commission costs plus it was sale of return, which meant if they didn't sell them all, it came off our account," recalls Nicci.
"After a couple of seasons, we had to really sit back and think about where we were going with our growing. Watching the supermarkets sell for nothing under $3.60 per/kg one season and we averaged 99 cents with all the costs to come off that, it just wasn't working for us. The only way to deal with that was to get much bigger or close down and we wanted to do neither."
They turned to retired grower and friend Robert Bradley for advice; he thought the only way to beat the system and stay growing was to sell direct to the public via a market.
"I was apprehensive, thinking I have three young children to provide for and we are going to throw everything into a market, because we knew, as soon as we put our head above the parapet, we would be black-listed from ever suppling into the system again."
But, with Robert, they took the plunge and contacted the council to find out what regulations were required. Then-mayor Stan Semenoff was a huge supporter of the idea, as were all the subsequent mayors.
Says Murray: "It took us a year to get this off the ground and all the while we had to keep it quiet because we knew that, if the big companies got wind of it, we would be stopped before we had a chance to even start. Plus, we needed time to get other things growing and talking to other growers in our area to get them to come join us."
They got the green light and, from their venue on Lower Dent St, went public.
"It was front page of the Advocate and, from that day on, we were no longer able to supply into the system."
Nicci well remembers the excitement and nerves of their first market in December 1998.
"We had twelve stalls, all of us, with not much to sell but determined to make it work. It was great being near the waterfront as we got the travellers from the boats who were used to buying in markets. It took a while for the locals to come as people thought we were a 'bunch of hippies'. We then spent the next few months trying to get growers to come along but a lot of them had been told that, if they supported us, then their other produce would be black-listed."
However, they persevered, collecting vegetables on a Friday night from other growers fearful of being black-listed, and selling on their behalf.
A year later, after a number of setbacks, the markets were ticking along steadily and they were moved to the car park behind the old library before settling in their current location in 2010.
But it wasn't until Country Calendar featured a story they likened to a 'David vs Goliath Struggle', that locals really took note.
"I think a lot of Whangarei people sat up and thought 'Wow, that is in our city!' and, the next week at the market, we couldn't believe the customers. Since then, we got a new resurgence in the market, plus social media sites were really getting going."
Nicci jumped on board with social media herself, starting a page called
Hydrohealthy and the Whangarei Growers Market, which features short videos from her kitchen on how to utilise the products they sell at their own stall. This has evolved to include salad mixes, gluten/dairy and nut-free dehydrated crackers, pestos, smoothies and dairy-free salad dressings, amongst other options.
Today, between 50-60 stallholders sell fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, preserves, honey, nuts, olive oil, along with seedlings and native plants and coffee. The markets are attended by up to 5,000 on a single morning with the Christmas market the biggest of the year.
"Many similar markets have sprung up around the country over the years but the Whangarei Grower's Market distances itself from the farmer's markets movement as we believe some of the newer markets have got side-tracked into 'food fashion'. For us, it is a matter of 'keep it simple, stupid' and it has really worked."
You do need to get in early for the good stuff and that suits the growers just fine. As Murray sums up: "We're all farmers; we need to get back to our farms."
He adds: "We are proud to still be able to say that we were the first and largest Grower's Market to start in Australasia and still are to this day."