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Going green: John Bostock's vision for organic food is paying off

John Bostock in one of his organic orchards in Hawke's Bay.

John Bostock’s “think big” project in Hawke’s Bay is bearing fruit.

They’re hard to miss in rural Hawke’s Bay: the green “Bostock Organic” signs at the gates of orchards and market gardens. Some 55 properties – most owned, some leased – have been absorbed by the Bostock empire in recent years.

John Bostock, the 60-year-old driver of this remarkable enterprise, would be uncomfortable with the word “empire” and is too modest to be called a pragmatic visionary. But that’s what he is.

Twenty-five years ago, he says, “it was super-clear to me that the green movement and the healthy-eating movement was something that wasn’t going to go away”. He’s also behind a quiet campaign to boost the gardening and cooking skills of residents in his Flaxmere community.

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The figures are impressive: 200 full-time employees, a seasonal workforce of 600, three pack houses, four cool-store facilities and annual revenue that tops $120 million, earned from world-wide exports of apples, squash, pumpkin, kiwifruit and onions.

Almost all the produce is organic and Bostock sees huge potential there. “I sat with some really big Chinese buyers recently, trying to persuade them to buy organic produce at a premium,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Why the emphasis on organic? Isn’t the whole of New Zealand organic?’ The perception is that because it comes from New Zealand, it must be 100% organic.”

The growth of Bostock’s business has also been, you might say, organic. An accidental entrepreneur, he graduated from Otago University in chemistry and came home to Hawke’s Bay with no idea what he wanted to do. “I spent summer holidays working at DSIR, a couple of terms school-teaching, neither of which turned the handle. But I was passionate about growing things – flowers and garlic – and that turned my lights on.”

A committed supporter of the Flaxmere Community Garden, he’s set up a company kitchen to feed his workers, with a French chef producing healthy, subsidised lunches – an initiative that’s led to weight loss and lower absenteeism. “I’m not Mother Teresa,” he says, “but I genuinely believe if you’re prospering, you can make a better world by helping people. My family – with five generations of doctors on my father’s side – has a big tradition of helping.

Bostock in the company kitchen he set up to feed his workers healthy, subsidised lunches. Photo/Richard Brimer.

“Our community has some very serious issues. If people have a shocking diet, this leads to many problems, such as behaviour issues and learning difficulties. In Māori communities, back in the day, they were fantastic gardeners, but the passion for gardening has gone. We’re trying to revive it.”

Bostock also owns New Zealand’s oldest ice-cream maker, Rush Munro’s, which has operated in Hastings since 1926, and he’s committed to keeping it in local ownership. “I was afraid it was going to be bought by the multinationals,” he says, of his decision to buy it, in 2000. “I wanted to keep it as a Hawke’s Bay icon, using real fruit, real cream, real milk.”

Bostock is quick to acknowledge the influence of his wife Vicki (née Glazebrook), who died in 2015. “Vicki was central to the whole business, in terms of inspiration, guidance and encouragement,” he says. “We used to discuss everything; she would often look at things from a different perspective. Vicki was particularly interested in early childhood; healthy nutrition was really important to her.”

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.