The Riverlea story begins with family. Lionel and Margy Whitehead started on bare land in the Manawatu a little over 30 years ago and, along with their sons Dion and Brendan, have grown the business to be a leading producer of hydroponically grown gourmet lettuces in New Zealand.
The inspiration to take the plunge into this type of growing came from a trip overseas where Lionel and Margy saw the hydroponic system in action. On their return to New Zealand they investigated further and found there was strong demand from Foodtown as well as restaurants and cafes.
“Our first child, Dion, was a baby and I’d finished working but Lionel was still a bank
manager,” says Margy.
“We actually started as a hobby but we could see what the future looked like in the banking sector with computers having a larger role and the impact on staff, so thought we'd have a real dab at growing.”
“Dion literally grew up in the business. I’d strap him on my back and carry him around while I worked.”
“He’s only 32 but has about 30 years’ experience,” Margy jokes.
Over the years things have evolved, they have extended, built a modern, new, automated tunnel house and also introduced a produce order and delivery service for the hospitality industry.
“We’ve had a lot of good years and had to ride out some tough times and have had to adapt,” says Lionel.
Dion, who now manages the day-to-day operations, said he couldn’t see himself in any other industry as working on the land has a huge number of rewards. As the eldest son, he was entrusted with a lot of responsibility on the farm and learnt valuable lessons that have helped stand him in good stead.
“It’s busy and every day seems to get busier,” says Dion. “It’s a five in the morning start to get harvesting underway as well as packing orders.”
“Then it’s planting, sales and concentrating on the business side of the business.”
Brendan, who is three years younger, is also a key part of the team, overseeing the maintenance and supports the planting programme.
“I had ambitions of getting a building apprenticeship when I left high school, but it
was around the time of the financial downturn. I was 16 and I stayed around the farm to help Dad out who has been the one who did a lot of the jobs I do now.”
“I started picking and packing when I was young but now take care of a lot of hands-on jobs like engineering, maintenance, building – you name it.”
There is plenty to be proud of, particularly in terms of what has been achieved by the family, with very little external help.
“Everything we’ve developed, we’ve done on our own, as far as how we grow, how we want the place to operate and how we’ve evolved the business,” says Lionel.
“We haven’t used consultants, we learnt from our errors, and all worked together.”
“The business side of things was easy, cash flows and controls, but we all had to learn on the job to be sparkies, plumbers, and handymen.”
Margy described it as a real Kiwi number-8 wire approach to get it off the ground. “It’s still that way,” added Brendan.
Riverlea is a little unique in the fact they also purchase product from MG Marketing’s market floor for their food service side of the business while also relying on Procurement Manager, Andrew Body, and the wider MG team to help
market and sell their gourmet lettuce.
“Andrew’s great,” says Margy. “He’s been around a long time and knows his stuff.”
“Dion regularly talks with Andrew and it’s good to see him out here at our place throughout the year.”
The team at Riverlea also have a great day-to-day relationship with Pio Hurinui from MG Palmerston North.
Image 1: The Whitehead family
Image 2: Brendan Whitehead, MG Representative Andrew Body & Dion Whitehead