Erin Atkinson knows all too well the benefits of keeping an open mind when it comes to career choices.
She had been considering medicine, science or forensic pathology but it was a tomato – or more correctly a glasshouse of them – that sealed the deal for horticulture.
Now kiwifruit are Erin’s career. But as the 30-year-old Mt Maunganui resident is quick to point out, there is so much more to a career in horticulture than plants. Erin is in charge of the orchard management division of Apata Group, a Bay of Plenty post-harvest service supplier for the kiwifruit and avocado industries. She oversees 200 hectares of kiwifruit Apata manages and leases, harvest management, grower technical support, health and safety, and compliance. Four orchard managers report to her and she has 45 clients.
Erin started at Apata in Te Puke as a technical advisor. In 2017, she became the first woman to win Horticulture New Zealand’s Young Grower of the Year title in its 11-year history. Similar to Young Farmer of the Year, the competition involves practical, theoretical and leadership challenges. Erin was also a Young Horticulturist of the Year 2017 finalist, receiving the Community Engagement Award, which recognised her work with industry bodies around the country attending careers expos and doing school talks.
In year 10 at Pukekohe High School, Erin took rural studies and then studied agriculture and horticulture, discovering that was where her passion lay.
“So I was lucky our school offered rural studies as an option.”
Erin’s dad is a mechanic by trade and her mum a chef. “So no green fingers in our family,” she joked.
She went on a field trip to a tomato glasshouse, spoke to a Massey University graduate, spent the summer picking tomatoes and decided horticulture was for her.
In 2007, Erin completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in horticulture from Massey and has since worked in the horticulture industry in New Zealand and England.
She’s a strong advocate that the industry needs to keep enticing young people into horticulture.
The average age of growers in the kiwifruit industry is 62. “Who is going to come through and support that booming industry? How is New Zealand supposed to maintain its market share overseas and keep generating income for people in this country if no one buys or manages orchards?”
Erin says the horticulture industry needs to tell its stories better to counter the perception horticulture is just about plants and for “dumb people.” The industry offers so many well-paid and amazing careers – consultants, packhouse managers, technicians, agronomists. Erin says the kiwifruit industry has some great female role models, such as her former manager at Apata whom she replaced, New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson, and Zespri independent director Teresa Ciprian.
Erin is looking forward to taking part in Future Leaders. It will her first trip to Palmerston North since she graduated. But wherever she goes, she will be leading the charge to share the benefits of working in New Zealand’s primary industries.
Future Leaders is a new half-day event focused on how the primary industries needs to evolve to attract new talent. It’s for anyone working in any sector who’s passionate about attracting others to the primary industries. Learn more about the other speakers who will be presenting.