Frans and Tineke de Jong and their two children Talbert and Simone arrived in New Zealand 13 years ago from Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands.​ Being in their mid 40s, they found it was time for a new challenge. Frans grew up on a diary farm and owned his own agricultural testing laboratory with an associate and Tineke was a florist. Son Talbert did an apprenticeship on a dairy farm near Morrinsville in 2001, which led the family to focus on New Zealand. The De Jongs spoke to Supermarket News about Southern Belle Orchard.

What is your company background, how did you start the business?

​​“When we bought the Southern Belle Orchard in 2003 we had never before heard of feijoas, which initially were being grown along with nashi pears, persimmons and blueberries. Although that gave a range of harvest times and incomes, we decided to specialize in feijoas and concentrate on quality and volume. The trees have been gradually replaced with new, large-fruit varieties on the espalier system, which helps crop management and harvesting. ​We also grow Capsicums and chillies in our state of the art greenhouses. ​

When Talbert rejoined the business full-time in 2013, with his partner Emily Meese, the family used Coach Approach business and succession planning services. The emotions, ambitions and values of all family members were considered, including daughter Simone, now working in tourism and marketing. Talbert and Emily are planning to gradually take on the entire business in the next decade.”

What are the current product range and variants and how do these products stand out in the market? 

​“Southern Belle Orchard grows spray free capsicums and chillies in 3000 m2 greenhouses. We introduced natural predator insects to control Thrips, spidermite, aphids and psyllids. For caterpillar moths powerfull blue light fly zappers are used. The rootzones are kept healthy by introducing compost extract. The soil microbes that are introduced this way will be nourished with an addition of seaweed, humic acid and some other biological extracts. This also means no fungicides are used. Regularly we hear from customers: ‘The taste and shelf life of your capsicums is amazing!’

Outside we have planted 3000 feijoa trees which are also grown totally spray free. Compost made from the prunings of the capsicums and horse manure from the neighbours builds up a healthy biology and boosts the organic matter in the soil.

We planted 15 different early-mid and late producing varieties, so the harvest will start as early as the 15th of March and continue on till the beginning of June. Southern Belle Orchard provides good quality touch picked fruit to the local markets but is also a leader in exporting feijoas to several destinations.”

Has there been any recent company news? 

​“It didn’t take us long to discover we wanted to run our business in a sustainable way, which did not go unnoticed.​ In 2015 Southern Belle Orchard was nominated for the Ballance Farm Environment Awards. We won in the Waikato ​in four categories​:

​​Hill Laboratories Harvest Award,
Massey University Innovation Award,
WaterForce Integrated Management Award
Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award.​

On top of that they also received the Supreme Award​ for being the most sustainable business in the whole of the Waikato.​

The judges said Southern Belle Orchard was an excellent example of what can be achieved when clear objectives and goals were established for a farming business. “All decisions are backed up with thorough analysis, research and science.  The amount of innovation and efficiency is amazing. They have a keen interest and curiosity for analysis and experimentation that has been translated into the business with much success.  Impressive analysis of production and forecasts prompts management to avert risk and drive efficiencies and productivity. The De Jongs are industry leaders paving the way and setting examples to follow.”

R​ecently Southern Belle Orchard has been named finalist in the ‘Outstanding Food Producer’ Awards for our delicious Sweet Palermo capsicums.”

What are the plans for the business moving forward, is there any expansion on the horizon?

​“We are always looking at new opportunities and innovations to improve their business. This year the Pack House has been upgraded with a second Treeways grader put in place to cope with the increasing amount of feijoas. This means the capacity has doubled, so all the work can still be done in the normal day time hours.

Although it is a great challenge to implement the modern growing techniques used in our greenhouses into the conservative approach of the organic auditing rules, Southern Belle Orchard is on the path towards recognition of their systems as organic. It will be a pioneering trajectory of many years, with a lot of trials but we are determined to make it happen.”

Where are your products currently available to buy, and are you looking at or wanting to expand your availability? If so, where would you like to see the product situated?

​“We prefer longstanding trading relationships with a select group of wholesalers, who can be trusted and appreciate the quality of the products. For general wholesales Southern Belle Orchard uses MG Marketing. As a shareholder of MG we are well looked after, which important now and in the future.

For the sprayfree, biologically grown products, Ceres has become the most important partner. Dealing with the team from Ceres is pleasant and comes natural. The sustainable and organic philosophy fits right into the direction Southern Belle Orchard is moving”.