By Richard Loader for Business South magazine, November 2020
A valued contributor to the Mid-Canterbury community and economy for the last 24 years, Talley’s vegetable processing plant just north of Ashburton has flourished within the prime vegetable-growing region.
Nestled on the outskirts of the small rural township of Fairton, Talley’s vegetable processing plant was relocated from Motueka in 1996 specifically to take advantage of Mid-Canterbury’s rich growing soils and flat irrigated land.
The plant has grown four times its original size and now employs a team of 360 staff covering a diverse range of vocations from field harvester drivers, truck drivers, process workers, line operators, forklift drivers, maintenance staff to administration and management staff.
Encompassing 4500 hectares and over 100 contract growers, Talley’s Mid Canterbury catchment area sits between Rangitata and Rakaia Rivers, stretching as far north as Dunsandel and as far south as Rangitata.
Talley’s state of the art growing and processing systems control every aspect of planting, harvesting, processing, freezing, packing, cold storage, and freight.
These fully integrated systems ensure consistent quality at every step, locking in the best attributes of fresh produce from farm to customer.
All Talley’s vegetables are 100% natural, GE free and snap frozen using IQF (individually quick frozen) technology, for both domestic and export markets.
Predominantly processing potatoes into tasty french fries, wedges and hash browns, the plant also processes the region’s peas and corn.
Harvested by the Mid-Canterbury farmers and transported to plant by Talley’s own transport division, some potatoes are processed fresh early in the season, while the rest are stored in large on-site storage sheds and processed throughout the rest of the year, finishing in November when the factory shifts to process peas over the summer months.
Aaron Chudleigh, General Manager – Vegetables, says the plant’s close proximity to its grower farmers enables Talley’s to achieve harvesting to frozen pea within a remarkable 90 minutes—locking in that ‘just picked’ taste and goodness.
“We’re probably one of the unique factories in the world with the capability to do that—simply because of our close proximity to the growers. The older peas get the more the quality and taste deteriorates.”
Last season Talley’s Fairton pea factory underwent a significant upgrade that included its in-feed reception area of raw material, the cleaning process, the implementation of an in-line colour sorter, upgrading the blancher, along with its cooling and freezing system—all designed to increase efficiency and capacity.
While corn is processed from March to April, using the same technology as the peas, when it arrives at the plant its husks are still in place providing a natural protection around the kernel from harmful elements.
“The three vegetable lines go through a raw material in-feed system, cleaned, blanched and cooked, colour sorted to remove any discrepancies, snap frozen, bagged and boxed. After production, all our products are stored on site in our own cool-store facilities along side the factory.”
The first of its style and type in the Southern Hemisphere, a new fully automated robotic cool store was commissioned just prior and during the CV19 lockdown period.
Unmanned and absent of forklifts, the new technology has given Talley’s the ability to fully utilise the cool store space, with a capacity of 9500 pallets of finished goods preload-out to trucks for the domestic market and containers for export.
“Of our french fry product, 50% is exported, with the rest going into the domestic market. On the vegetable front, 85% of product is exported to Australia, South East Asia, Japan and a little bit to the Islands.”
When CV19 sent the country spinning into Lockdown, a surge in demand for vegetables presented an opportunity for Talley’s to come to the rescue.
“A lot of vegetables are imported into New Zealand and the importers couldn’t react as fast as we could to Covid,” explains Aaron. “Seeing this, we swapped our factory over from export products to domestic products to meet demand. We’re a New Zealand grower and New Zealand owned business and we were able to make that change within a day.”
Of the 360 employees, 30% are immigrant workers and CV19 did present uncertainty about renewal of their Visas.
“Our immigrant workers are not seasonal. They’re people who have been with us for several years and amongst some of our most highly skilled line and machinery operators, and some supervisors. Fortunately, the Visas are starting to get renewed now otherwise it may have presented us with a real problem.”
While location, location, location and its lush land has undoubtedly contributed to Talley’s success in Mid Canterbury over the last two and a half decades, its ability to build and maintain lasting relationships with its grower farmers has also been key.
“It’s hugely based on trust. Peas and corn are a highly volatile crops at harvest time. You have to harvest at the right time otherwise it spoils so it’s really important that planning around growing and planting with the farmers is on point. But we have a team of agronomists and field representatives who spend time in the field working with the farmers and understanding their needs and requirements and balancing the needs of the growers with the factory.”
When scanning the supermarket freezers, spare a thought for Talley’s peas, corn and french fries that started life in the Mid Canterbury paddocks and may well end up sharing your plate.