Kaikohe Berries

June 2024

A visit to Kaikohe Berries, a hydroponic berry fruit venture.

Kaikohe Berries is a hydroponic berry fruit venture set up in 2022 on a former dairy farm, that’s also home to Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park. Along with the usual challenges of beginning a new operation, the company has dealt with the increasingly common severe weather events that many New Zealand primary producers are having to factor into their operational planning. Despite this, it is positively contributing to the transformation of the region, providing opportunities for careers and economic development alongside strong social objectives, and enabling a palpable sense of pride in the community. 


Located at Ngawha in Northland, on 26 hectares of the 240ha Ngawha Innovation and Enterprise Park, the business is a result of a regional partnership between Ngāpuhi Asset Holding Company Ltd, and Far North Holdings Ltd. 


Kaikohe Berries has ambitions to be one of the largest strawberry fruit growing operations in the country. It owns 26 hectares, with 10ha of the hydroponic growing system currently under tunnels, and a further 6 hectares of covered crops planned for the near future. As well, in 2024, construction began on a packhouse and cool store. 


The growing tunnels each measure 50m by 10m, covering multiple rows of waist-height hydroponic racks containing bags of coconut fibre growing medium. The tunnel covers create a more stable and controlled growing environment for plants, as well as an efficient, ergonomically friendly harvesting setup for the staff.  


The tunnels also collect rainwater that is fed into a 16,000 cubic metre water reservoir on site which feeds through to the fertigation unit. Additionally, Kaikohe Berries is a shareholder in the nearby Matawii dam. Their share of water-take from the dam will provide long term certainty of water supply for the hydroponic system. 


Like many startup operations, Kaikohe Berries has faced significant challenges. While originally focused on strawberries, it was forced to diversify because of Cyclone Gabrielle in January 2023. The strawberry plant propagators that supply Kaikohe Berries with their plants faced significant plant losses due to the cyclone and other unfavourable growing conditions. As a result, Kaikohe Berries lost two thirds of the 600,000 strawberry plants slated for planting for the 2023/2024 season.  


This resulted in a major shift for the company, with a diversification into fast turnover vegetable crops, such as cos lettuce, bok choy, beetroot, and radishes. 6ha of vegetables were planted, with 4ha of strawberries grown this year. 


General Manager Todd Jackson explains Kaikohe Berries has strong social objectives (in addition to financial goals) embedded into the company. He is implementing generational change in providing stable, well-paid jobs and long-term careers for local iwi.  He says there is a real sense of pride, optimism, and ownership among the staff. Todd could describe a number of his staff whose lives have been positively enriched, both professionally and personally, by the opportunity to work for the company. 


At its seasonal peak, the operation provides work for 70-80 seasonal workers, in addition to about 12 FTE positions. Many workers appreciate the (often significant) reduction in travel required to get to work, with some having reduced their working commutes by up to an hour each day by securing a job closer to home. 

One of the company’s staff is technical assistant Kim Timperley, who describes the strong connection to her whenua and whanau as a consistent support, especially when the work is hard. “I just look up to where my tipuna are, and get strength from having them nearby”, she says.  


The business currently has a domestic focus, with strawberries and beetroot going to local supermarket (through fresh produce group MG Marketing) and other vegetables supplied (via T&G) for ingredients for home meal delivery business, My Food Bag.  


Early fruiting varieties of strawberries, such as Ventana, and the region’s natural ambient warmth and sunshine hours, result in a supply of fruit to local markets ahead of traditional producers. This focus on growing for the shoulder of the season is expected to add to the value of products grown on site.  


Strawberry plants are replaced every year. Plug plants are sourced annually from tissue culture mother plants which are grown in a Waikato nursery. There has also been a requirement to top up plant numbers from daughter plants (harvested from existing strawberry plants) which are sent to a local nursery to be cultivated into plug plants, before being returned to the growing tunnels. 


The first strawberry harvest took place in October 2022, with local markets a priority – an important milestone in this venture’s development. As Kaikohe Berries notes, ‘we are more than a berry farm. We are a hub for the community and a place of opportunity and growth for our region.’