Strawberry stalwarts selling business

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Moving on...Donald and Jacky Butler will be running sheep instead of growing berryfruit. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

Strawberries and Donald and Jacky Butler have been part of the Waimate scene for decades. But now an era is coming to a close, as Chris Tobin reports.

Donald and Jacky Butler have become synonymous with their popular fruit farm and cafe in Hook, north of Waimate, but are now moving on.

The couple have placed Butlers Fruit Farm and Cafe on the market.

Mr Butler said they had been putting the decision off before deciding a couple of weeks ago to sell up.

The cafe beside State Highway 1 opened in 2000. Before that the couple had a stall located on the roadside further north although Mr Butler has grown berries and fruit in the area since he left school.

Growing strawberries and being his own boss were what motivated him as a young man.

“Way back then Maf [the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries] said you could make a living off an acre of strawberries.

“I worked for different farmers for a while, then weaned myself off that and got into strawberries.

“I went to growers’ meetings and one of those guys said, ‘if you’re self-employed you can’t be sacked .. but you can go broke!’

“I’ve always pushed Waimate strawberries and the Waimate thing over the years, just as much if not more than Butlers.”

After marrying Jacky, then a teacher at Waimate Centennial School, in 1970, the couple grew strawberries, peaches and apples on two properties.

“The strawberries were sent to Dunedin or Christchurch for the markets there and we were also exporting to Australia mainly, then we got the peaches going, Mr Butler said.

“In those days it was nothing to sell 10 to 20 boxes of peaches to one housewife because they bottled and preserved them.

“In the 1970s and 1980s we exported to all sorts of places, delivering straight to the plane in Christchurch.

“You wouldn’t be able to do that now – you have to go through a dozen different agencies and inspectors.”

The Butlers started the highway-side cafe 18 years ago and it is this which is being sold along with 11.95ha of land.

The couple reckoned the best time for growing strawberries was during the 1990s, when Cambodian refugees provided a great source of workers for the three to four-month picking season.

The usual picking hours were from 7.30am to 3pm. The Cambodians started work in darkness at 5am.

“This labour force really got us going. We used to send out 800 trays a day or at the very best 10,000 punnets,” Mr Butler said.

The Cambodians’ aim was to move to Australia for their children’s futures and after a few years they departed.

“Today we’ve got a band of Filipinos from the dairy industry, Nepalese, Fijians and not many Kiwis.

“The other ones who always want work are backpackers.”

From 50 to 80 pickers in the summer, the numbers have dropped to 20 to 30 and the strawberry crop has been reduced also.

“Today we’ve cut back on the strawberries for different reasons. They’re growing a lot in Auckland and they’re bringing in Australian strawberries. They’re terrible. They’re not the taste of what we’ve got around here.

“But we’ve increased our raspberries.”

As well as a reduction in the strawberry crop, the number of berryfruit growers around Waimate had dropped dramatically, from 70 when he started out, to two full-time growers and two to three part-timers, Mr Butler said.

However, they were delighted with the success of Waimate’s annual Strawberry Fare.

His wife was chairwoman of the Waimate Art Group, which was instrumental in starting the festival.

“The thing was to promote not only Waimate strawberries but Waimate business. It’s grown with most of the stallholders coming from Auckland to Bluff and every year there’s a huge influx of people.”

While the cafe and fruit farm were being sold they were retaining 56.6ha.

They would be running sheep on their remaining land but would not be growing berryfruit.

Yet strawberries still remained close to their hearts.

“Hopefully, someone will pick it up and continue on with the strawberries,” Mr Butler said.