The Tasman region’s Conning family has been following the ‘paddock to plate’ ethos for decades, long before it became a popular marketing slogan.
Robbie Conning started growing vegetables in his late teens on his parents’ property. A shearer by day, Robbie spent his evenings planting and cutting cabbages and other crops to sell at local flea markets during weekends. When Robbie’s rousie Cheryl became his wife, the couple worked in Australia to help fund the purchase of a 10 acre block halfway between Hope and Brightwater.
“That block was the start of the main farm,” says Ben, the youngest of the three Conning sons who now all work in the rapidly expanding family business.
The highest profile aspect of the Connings’ operation is Connings Food Market, a 620 m2 fresh produce and deli outlet which was completed in June 2019 on the Appleby Highway between Nelson and Motueka. Behind the scenes are the five family members, 120 ha of productive land which includes a berry farm and around 110 employees at the season’s peak pre-Christmas.
“Dad and Mum sold most of their produce through the markets and sold the seconds through a series of stalls and then a shop in Brightwater,” Ben says. “Dad did the growing and Mum ran the shop and raised us three boys.”
By the early 2000s, Robbie and Cheryl closed the Brightwater shop due to the workload and focused on selling their vegetables via auction. Fast forward to 2016 and middle son Toby, a diesel mechanic, came to work on the farm with Robbie. The eldest son Simon, a builder, joined the business a year later when the family established a new, small retail operation called Farm Fresh at Nelson’s ‘old factory corner’ on the Appleby Highway. The following year youngest son Ben, a civil engineer, was also officially involved. Simon’s building experience and Ben’s commercial construction and project management expertise were big assets for the store development.
“The Farm Fresh shop was only 70 m2,” says Ben who now looks after sales, harvesting and pack house operations. “We quickly outgrew it and it was difficult to manage. We always had a vision of opening a store to sell direct. It’s been well supported by the community and Christmas was very busy; I guess growing pains are a good problem to have! We haven’t been through a whole year yet and even though the new building is nearly ten times the size, it’s still not big enough, we need to expand chiller space!”
When the Connings bought the shop land, the berry farm next door came on the market. “It made sense strategically to buy that farm, which was established by long-time Fruitfed Supplies Representative Rod French.
Rod has helped us with advice on the berries as this was a new crop for us. The berries are all sold through the store and we have to buy in more berries to keep up with demand.
“Rod’s son, Hayden French, another Fruitfed Supplies Representative in Richmond, works with Toby who looks after our seeding programme and production planning, as well as machinery maintenance. Toby or Dad and Hayden drive around all the vegetable crops each week, with Dad and another long-time employee looking after the spraying.
“Simon manages the seven-day-a-week store with the help of a procurement manager for the products we don’t grow ourselves and a team of about 30. Only a small percentage of the crops we grow go into the shop with 85-90% of some crops going to market. For the shop, it’s all about managing product for freshness and price for the customer.”
Hayden notes that the relationship between the Conning family and Fruitfed Supplies has only strengthened over the years. "We enjoy seeing the Connings grow their business and are pleased to be able to contribute to their success," says Hayden.
The Conning family is well on the road to making their Appleby Highway food market a local destination for quality, fresh produce and artisan products from the Nelson/Tasman/Marlborough region.