For the first time in the competition’s history, there are two winners of the Young Vegetable Grower of the Year competition: Esteban Ibanez and Gurjant Singh.
The day-long competition in Christchurch saw entrants compete in a series of practical and theoretical challenges designed to test the skills needed to run a successful vegetable growing business, from pest identification to forklift proficiency.
Currently working as a production agronomist for Leaderbrand South Island and with a Bachelor in Agriculture, 30 year old Esteban is all about growing vegetables, and hopes that this win will be a step towards networking with people who share his same goals and ideals.
"I’m astonished, actually," Esteban says. "I was nervous to begin, but as the day progressed I got more and more confident. The other contestants were great, hard-working and motivated, and it’s been great to compete beside them.
Gurjant, 27, comes from a farming background in Punjab, India, and moved to New Zealand in 2008, studied Level 4 Horticulture at MIT, and began work at T&G in Favona, where he is now an assistant grower. Gurjant entered the Young Vegetable Grower competition to challenge himself and further his dream of becoming a top grower. Aside from his professional life, Gurjant lists his greatest achievement as becoming a father to his daughter, Amanat.
"I’m very lucky to have great support from my family and colleagues," says Gurjant. "They’ve helped me every step of the way. It’s been a great experience, met some very nice people, especially the other growers. Back to work on Monday, and looking forward to the next stage."
With each taking numerous individual prizes, as well as scoring consistently high in other events, the competition proved too close to call. Mike Arnold, chairperson of the Horticulture Canterbury Growers Association, says this is one for the record books.
"The Young Grower competition aims to showcase our outstanding young people and, with two champions this year, we clearly have some excellent talent here," Mike says."The way Esteban, Gurjant, and the other contestants spoke about the urban-rural divide shows that they truly understand the need to engage and speak frankly with the public about our industry."
Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman agrees that this is an unexpected but welcome turn of events.
"We have a shortage of workers in horticulture and seeing young people like this coming into New Zealand to work in the vegetable growing industry shows how viable it is as a career option.
"Horticulture is a $5.68 billion industry, and one in which these young men will be leaders before too long. They have demonstrated that they have the capability to move the industry forward and engage with the people who enjoy the healthy food they produce, and clearly have bright futures ahead of them."
The Young Vegetable Grower of the Year competition was run by the Horticulture Canterbury Growers Association, in association with Horticulture New Zealand. Now in its twelfth year, the competition continues to exemplify the quality of young people entering the vegetable growing industry.
18 year old Lincoln Roper of Roper and Son was second runner up, and took the individual speech prize, where he asked horticulture if it was ready to "change your culture."
Esteban and Gurjant, together with four regional Young Fruit Growers, will go on to compete for the final Young Vegetable Grower 2018 title, and the ultimate Young Grower of the Year 2018 title, in Napier on 21-22 August.