Magazine Article 2013 – Doug Whitfield – No regrets after a lifetime of vegetable growing


Doug Whitfield: No regrets after a lifetime of vegetable growing

By Rose Mannering

NZGROWER   Vol 68 No 1   Profile   51

There was no question in Doug Whitfield’s mind what he wanted to do with his life, carrying on the family vegetable growing business at Pakowhai near Hastings was the only option for him.

After 53 years of growing potatoes he has no regrets and even though he thinks this may be his last year of growing potatoes he can say he has loved his time in the industry. Hard work and passion for the crops and new machinery as it became available have punctuated his many years in vegetable growing.

He puts a new spin on the old tale “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”; this adage becomes “a potato a day…” in his household.

The Whitfield affair with the vegetables began with Doug’s grandfather who was a vegetable grower in Lower Hutt. Doug was born in 1938. “I have lived in Pakowhai all of my life, I was born in Hodson Rd, Pakowhai and I have moved around the corner into my father’s house just three years ago. As a kid we used to mole potatoes with horses, two horse power, using a ‘ride-on’ cultivator.”

A brand new Farmall tractor was used to cultivate the potatoes in 1947. “I have still got it in the shed, still in perfect working order.”

“When I was doing my apprenticeship I would get up at 4am and with the single row potato digger I would turn the potatoes and the gang would pick and bag them during the day.”

Doug’s father purchased the current 11 hectare Pakowhai property at auction from meatworks operators W.R. Richmond in 1957.

First Doug dabbled in carpentry and undertook an apprenticeship from 1954 to 1959. However, he was itching to get back on the farm and as soon as he finished his apprenticeship he went home and worked on the vegetable business. “I was 20 then, and a leading hand for my father. When I was doing my apprenticeship I would get up at 4am and with the single row potato digger I would turn the potatoes and the gang would pick and bag then during the day.”

Doug married Gwen in 1961.

He and his brother Alan used to see who could pick up the most spuds. It used to be a close thing, with both brothers adept at the task. They also used to hand sow and stack.

“We purchased our first mechanical potato harvester in 1963, with the potatoes going into one tonne bins. Back in the days of hand pickers we used to have 30 working in a gang, and the potatoes could only be harvested in autumn. Mechanical harvesters changed that with harvesting right through the winter.”

With the advent of the two-row potato harvester the Whitfields were keen to bring one onto the farm. Doug went to Australia and came home with a brand new German built Grimme.

Doug has grown grey pumpkins, potatoes, and tomatoes for Wattie’s beginning in the 1960s. “We handpicked 30 acres, and grew tomatoes for many years. There are not many paddocks in this district I haven’t ploughed.”

Doug moved away from growing tomatoes and concentrated on potatoes, and that has been the mainstay ever since. Potato varieties have evolved over time as new and improved options became available. “First we grew Sutton Supreme and Short Top then moved into Sebago and Katahdin, Chipawa and Ilam Hardy. Now predominant varieties are Moonlight, Agria, Rua, Purple Passion and Summer Delight. Nadine is the predominant washing potato.”

Agria is very popular, the number one domestic variety. Rua still has its niche and Moonlight is a good potato but a bit more susceptible to psyllid. Earlier varieties were harder to handle and bruised easily. Varieties bred by Crop and Food Research Rua and Moonlight had stood the test of time, although a number of new varieties now come out of Dutch breeding programmes.

The Whitfields also ventured into orcharding, planting 30 acres of orchards in 1963 at Pakowhai growing Golden Queen peaches, Williams bon Chretien and 10 acres of apples. “We pulled it all out because my brother got sick of worrying about labour supply. I have always been a cropping farmer, I hated the idea of permanent crops.”

Sheep and beef farming, with a property in Norsewood and more lately with some leased land at Maraetotara has also become a passion for Doug.

In 1989 DJ Whitfield and Sons geared up a few notches with a business set up in Ohakune growing seed and washing

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potatoes. “We farmed in Ohakune for 17 years, then in 2006 packed up and came back to the Bay. We ran the Ohakune business from our Hawke’s Bay base.”

At various times Whitfields supplied the Wattie’s potato processing plant in Fielding, McCains, and Mr Chips in Auckland and Tauranga, and then washing potatoes for Progressive. “Now we just grow for fresh consumption in local supermarkets.”

At a peak Doug had 450 acres of potatoes growing in Hawke’s Bay and in Ohakune, including washing and seed potatoes. Now that has dropped back to 50 acres.


Twenty years of growing squash had its ups and down as the returns for this product were always volatile. “At one time we were growing 100 acres of squash; it served us well as part of the rotation. We would plant it in spring after potatoes were dug and the shorter squash growing season would allow us to put the paddock into grass the following autumn.”

Never one to sit on the side, Doug was also involved with the squad representative body, the New Zealand Buttercup Squad Council which he first joined as an executive member in 1995. He subsequently became chairman in 2005, a position he held for five years. The competitive nature of the industry within New Zealand made growing squash tough for smaller growers. At one time the squash council employed a sales and promotions man in Japan, and Doug enjoyed “keeping an eye on him”. Now the industry is more fragmented with a few large exporters doing their own programmes.

The introduction of the potato pest psyllid has come at a huge cost to the family business. “We coped with all of the potato diseases until we came across psyllid; that was our biggest knock ever. We lost over $1 million by the time we lost the crop in the ground, and had met the costs of planting the next year’s crop. It set us back badly. We were determined to beat it; we haven’t but we have got it under control.” The industry hasn’t come up with any magic cure for psyllid, but regular spraying every nine days, two to three days after an irrigation,  has kept the pest at bay.

“Our border control let it come in from North America.” The Whitfields were unaware they had the pest but noticed leaves were starting to turn up, and on investigation found the potato psyllid had demolished all of the potatoes.

Photo caption – All packed up ready to go to Ohakune, DJ Whitfield & Sons Ltd plant and equipment is readied for the journey.

NZGROWER   Vol 68 No 1   Profile   53


“One of the things that have really driven me all of these years is a real love of machinery. When I was only 18 I drove the first bulldozer for my neighbour.” Another driver has been the satisfaction of getting the crop harvested, and focusing on harvesting potatoes without causing any damage.

“I love seeing crops grow. This year we have got a drought in Hawke’s Bay; in the early 1990s we bought irrigators. My potatoes are looking great. Cropping potatoes is my first love, growing and eating them, although my livestock have been great. I also loved growing squash, we didn’t plant any this year I lost $40,000 on the squash last year, and decided to give it away.” A very wet summer resulted in a poor storage profile for the crop, and the shipment of squash collapsed in transport on its way to Japan.

The whole process of potato growing from planting through to packing to ensuring a satisfied customer appeals to Doug.

“We now have a harvester capable of doing 100 tonne a day, and a grader capable of processing the same (in bulk). There has been a huge advance in machinery. The biggest advance was moving from harvesting into sacks to bins.”

Doug has two sons, the youngest ran a couple of trucks for Whitfields and then bought a trucking business down the road. The oldest son worked in the industry but eventually decided he was not so keen to carry on.

“One of the biggest challenges has been my political involvement in the vegetable industry. It has been a huge challenge, I have been very happy to serve the industry. I need to pay a big tribute to my late wife Gwen, she was able to carry on here while I went away to meetings. Gwen did everything, paid the bills, cooked the meals…” Gwen passed away in September and after 51 ½ years of marriage Doug finds her passing a huge loss.

Doug was first elected to the New Zealand Potato Federation in 1979, it was part of the Federated Farmers then. He was the Hawke’s Bay – East Coast member and his friend was retiring from the chair in 1985 so he picked up that role. In 1987 representation of the potato industry moved out of Federated Farmers and into Vegfed. Main crop potatoes harvested after March had come under the Federated Farmers umbrella and those harvested before March were under the Vegetable wing. “Lex Wilcox from Pukekohe and me did a two week sales tour of the South Island gaining support of growers down there. Then of course Vegfed was brought into Horticulture New Zealand. We have a top man in the ceo Peter Silcock.” Doug was an inaugural chairman and later vice-chairman of the Vegfed Potato Sector.

“One of the things that have really driven me all these years is a real love of machinery. When I was only 18 I drove the first bulldozer for my neighbour.”

Other committees he was involved with included the Export Access Committee, and chairing the Potato Research and Development Council.

Industry involvement had great rewards for Doug, meeting people, fellow growers and working to improve things that were not good in the industry. “It gave me a much wider perspective on our industry. I travelled with (recently retired business manager) Ron Gall to Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Malaysia, as well as trips to Australia, Tasmania and Japan three times with the squash industry.”

“All that part – meeting with other people – talking and finding solutions has been great.”

There hasn’t been much spare time in Doug Whitefield’s life but he has also enjoyed fishing, both in the sea and lake,

Photo caption – Tractor replicas now shared with his grandchildren.

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One memorable day Doug and his two sons and two daughters worked on the two-row potato harvester on a Saturday and hauled in 120 tonnes of potatoes.

and church involvement. Family has always been of great importance to him, and continues to be with four children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. “The kids have all worked on the farm for pocket money.” One memorable day Doug and his two sons and two daughters worked on the two-row potato harvester on a Saturday and hauled in 120 tonnes of potatoes.” John was on the bin trailer, I drove the harvester, Ross was on the forklift and the girls were on the harvester. We had a payment deal per bin, they all wanted money to go somewhere. Gwen delivered the lunch to us on the job.”

“I am thinking this might be my last season of growing or perhaps I’ll just grow summer crops like corn.” The Pakowhai block has been sold to Chesterhope Station.

Doug believes there will always be a future for vegetable growing, especially with the health benefits of fresh vegetables and fruit becoming obvious. Eating fresh produce is an important part of his life, and a potato a day as well as plenty of greens, carrots and apples ensure at 74 years old he is in good health.

The perennial problem for growers will remain the low level of returns. “Returns are just not good enough. We need to lift the value to growers.” He believes that New Zealand has a great future in producing process crops with an abundance of land and water. The strength of the New Zealand dollar against trading partners continues to erode value to growers.

Doug might be easing back on the vegetable growing but lately he has developed a new passion, tending his sheep and beef property at Maraetotara. It doesn’t look like he will be sitting about with his feet up any time soon.

Doug was presented with the Chairman’s Award at the third Potatoes New Zealand Charitable Trust Award Dinner at Sky City in Auckland on November 9.

NZGROWER   Vol 68 No 1   Profile   55

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Magazine article

Date published

February 2013

Creator / Author

  • Rose Mannering


Horticulture New Zealand


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