In a thrilling two-day final held in Karaka, Nelson orchardist Meryn Whitehead emerged victorious, securing the prestigious title of 2023 New Zealand Young Horticulturist of the Year. The 29-year-old, a team coordinator at Vailima Orchard, a fourth-generation family-owned business, triumphed over six competitors representing various horticultural sectors. Vailima Orchard, spanning over 200 hectares of apple orchards on the Tasman District’s Waimea plains, has been home to Meryn for the past three years. Reflecting on her win, she expressed a sense of disbelief, acknowledging the tough competition but emphasizing the supportive camaraderie among contestants.
The Young Horticulturist Competition, an annual event held in November, tests finalists on horticultural skills, leadership ability, speechcraft, business acumen, and industry knowledge. Meryn, representing the fruit and vegetable sector, competed against individuals from diverse sectors, including winegrowers, amenity horticulture, plant producers, landscapers, arborists, and florist/flower growers.
For Meryn, whose journey into orchard work began with seasonal work on a small-scale stone fruit orchard in Hastings after leaving university in Wales, this win solidifies her passion for the industry. She describes herself as a "bit of a hybrid," having been born in England, spent most of her life in Wales, and now calling New Zealand home. Meryn's family in the UK, deeply rooted in horticulture, celebrate her success.
As the Young Horticulturist of the Year, Meryn is eager to inspire others to explore opportunities in the industry. She values the balance between practical fieldwork and office responsibilities, expressing a commitment to encouraging new and younger staff members to discover their passions within the business. During the award dinner, Meryn was joined on the podium by Auckland’s Renee Johnson, representing the Amenity Horticulture sector, who secured the second position. Christchurch's Lydia O’Dowd, representing the plant producer sector, claimed the third spot.
The competition also recognized outstanding achievements in various components, with Meryn winning the T&G Fresh Practical Components, Fruitfed Supplies Leadership, and Bayer Best Practice awards. Renee Johnson received the Countdown Best in Sector award, and Lydia O’Dowd won the Countdown Innovation Project and RNZIH Best Speech Award. The Horticentre Charitable Trust Sustainability Award went to Sarah-Lee Ewe, a Ramarama florist.
Royal NZ Institute of Horticulture Education Trust Chairperson Hamish Gates expressed the competition's role in shaping the future of horticulture, noting the growing support from sectors, helpers, and sponsors. Gates emphasized the increasing preparedness, impressiveness, and competitiveness of finalists, affirming that "horticulture's future is in highly skilled and capable hands."