John Gibb

My ‘take home’ lesson of the last few months is that your happiness is all to do with attitude rather than circumstance.  Fortunately trauma has not forced me to learn this.  I have been taught this in interviews conducted for this and previous articles.  Last month I interviewed ever-positive Norma Francis, who has weathered setbacks which you would expect to flatten her. 

Today I interviewed John Gibb, co-founder of Sujon Berryfruits.  I was aware that John had Parkinson’s disease, and it was with misgivings that I sought an interview.  I more than half expected him to be bitter, and disinclined to talk.  The interview was, however, a delight.  I enjoyed the company of a man who had lost much, but had gained self-knowledge and serenity.

John grew up on the west coast. He was big and burly, a carpenter, possum trapper, and exporter of possum skins.  A man of boundless drive and vitality.

He and his wife Sue moved to Nelson in the late 1970s to grow Kiwifruit and Stonefruit on an orchard they bought in partnership with Sue’s brother and his wife.  Some of you may remember it: Zenith Orchard, on the corner of Paton’s and Aniseed Valley Road opposite Hope School. 

This was a time when horticulture was shifting into overdrive.  John and Sue were far from alone in staking everything on a future as orchardists. 

After a couple of years, a ten-hectare property on Haycocks road, next to the foothills, came on the market.  It had three hectares of boysenberries, two hectares of blackberries, and a row of raspberries.  The vendor was in the process of establishing Kiwifruit on the balance.  John and Sue bought the property and finished the Kiwifruit establishment the previous owner had started.

It seemed as if nothing but prosperity lay ahead for Kiwifruit growers, but after a couple of years, prices slumped.  John and Sue were quick to convert their kiwifruit blocks to boysenberries.  John was thoroughly convinced of a bright future for Boysens, a berry which grew better in Nelson than anywhere else in the world.  Its Achilles heel was, however, the cost of hand picking.  To overcome this, John spent the vast sum of $64,000 on a machine harvester.  Then, to keep the machine busy, he and Sue leased boysenberry blocks all over the Waimea Planes.

Boysenberries were seen by many as the next Kiwifruit.  Blocks had popped up everywhere and soon supply exceeded demand.  To make matters worse, there were multiple exporters.  As John put it “Fifteen minutes after meeting with a potential buyer, that buyer probably had another meeting with another exporter from New Zealand who offered product for cheaper than yours and so on.”  The product being offered by the two or more exporters was likely to be the very same fruit, and by competing, the exporters drove down the price.

John and Sue found themselves in the same position as the ranks of other optimistic aspiring growers getting their fingers singed and being forced to abandon their dreams.  

At the same time that John and Sue were going broke with boysenberries, people were telling them what a fantastic fruit it was, and that they couldn’t buy it.  It was 1982, and there was no such thing as free flow frozen fruit at the supermarkets.  The technology existed however, so John and Sue decided to bring that product to the New Zealand public.  Sujon was born.

They developed a pilot plant, created attractive packaging, produced their first consumer packs and set off to find stores that would give it a try.  With an infant daughter, there was nothing for it but to take her with them. Michelle, at six weeks old, was a tiny baby and they joked that she rode in the glove box.  A brother for Michelle arrived a few years later, but he was a bit larger. 

Sujon Packaging Early 1990s

It was a case of having to visit every supermarket.  Their first order for 100 boxes of twenty packs was from a Three Guys Supermarket in Auckland.  Subsequently a distributor took them on, but the road trips continued for ten years, as they still needed to promote to individual stores.  When the kids were of school age, the trips were timed for the holidays at Easter and in August.  By the time they reached intermediate school age, Michelle and her brother had first hand knowledge of most corners of New Zealand.

Collapsed markets is not the only impediment horticulturalists face.  They are totally at the mercy of the weather, and in the case of orchardists, grape growers, or berryfruit growers, a year’s work and investment can be lost in minutes.  So how does that feel?  When it happens, your heart is in your mouth.  Depending on how financially precarious you are, it could mean a big life change. But it is time when you feel fully alive.  It’s like mountaineers who seek out near death experiences for the feelings they experience.  John describes the thoughts that go through your head as something like the coming and going of a hail storm.  “Black clouds loom, there’s despair as the storm destroys your work, and then, in minutes, the sun breaks through and you’re thinking of next year.”

In 2003 John had, by choice, loaded himself with concerns.  He and Sue had a business that presented many and varied challenges.  He wasn’t particularly fit, didn’t eat well, and lived on stress.  After putting down the phone, having just learnt that a big order from Tip Top was cancelled, he felt a pain in his chest.  He made for the computer and googled ‘heart attack’.  The site he visited described all his symptoms and said if these apply, stop looking at this site, and seek medical help.  John then rang a friend who was a heart attack survivor, and he also told him to get help immediately. 

This was the start of a forced change in the direction for John’s life.  Smaller attacks followed, as did a tremor in one finger.  A year later it was two fingers, and a year after that one hand was shaking.  Test were run and John was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease.

Soon after John’s first heart attack, Sue and John relocated their plant to a purpose-built factory at Tahunanui, employed a CEO and a General Manager.  They kept on pushing forward with product development, in particular black currant powder.  Though frozen berries remain king, the black currant powder is growing.  New Zealand black currants have the highest levels of antioxidants of any food.  Antioxidants combat the precursors to cancer.  The other major benefit of black currants is enhanced blood flow.  I have the Sujon black current powder on my porridge every day.

Sujon started with Frozen boysenberries, but blueberries soon followed.  Now they supply all the main berries, also rhubarb, cherries, mango, and avocado.  Their number one selling item is mixed berries which consists of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and boysenberries.

When I visited John and Sue, John was changed from the burly man I knew of when I was a horticultural consultant in the 80s, and he had changed in other profound ways.  He told me that he had come to accept the hand he had been dealt, but not in a ‘I give up’ sort of way.  Though his physical vitality was diminished, his brain was humming with positive, progressive thoughts, and as he said to me, “Although attitude determines happiness.  Thoughts determine your attitudes, and you have the ability to control your thoughts”.

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