The wine industry was never Stuart Dudley’s first career choice. The viticulturist for Villa Maria Wines in Marlborough had his mindset on research or forensics, having completed a degree in Genetics and Biochemistry.
At a Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA) ceremony on February 25, the couple also collected the CB Norwood Distributors Ltd Agri-Business Management Award, East Coast Farming for the Future Award (as sponsored by the Hawke's Bay Regional Council and the Gisborne District Council), Massey University Innovation Award and the PGG Wrightson People In Agriculture Award.
BFEA judges say the Hirsts have committed themselves "in good and bad times" to their business and industry, describing them as "a hard-working couple using their individual strengths to create a strong team that balances innovation with production strengths".
The Hirsts run a 40ha pipfruit and blueberry operation spread over five blocks just south of Hastings. Their business has grown considerably since 1989 when they bought 11ha of bare land and planted 1.5ha of apples. Today they grow 32ha of apples and 2.5ha of blueberries, employing seven full-time staff (including themselves), two permanent part-timers and a seasonal team of more than 100 people.
While export apples account for 90% of the business, a newer blueberry venture is showing significant potential. Blueberries were introduced to the pipfruit mix in 2005 as a form of diversification, and - under the Bay Blueberries brand - the business now produces a range of fresh and frozen products for export and local sale.
BFEA judges say persistence, passion and integrity have helped the Hirsts survive challenging periods of industry change and adverse climatic and economic conditions over almost three decades in horticulture.
They have kept the business in the family "making a difference in the horticulture industry while focusing on the basics of sound management, social responsibility and the environment".
Orchard foreman Kelly Whaanga plays a pivotal role. A staff member for 16 years, Kelly works closely with the Hirsts and focuses on the operational side of the business.
All horticultural processes are based on industry-best practise and the Hirsts are passionate about growing quality fruit in the most sustainable manner possible.
Judges described their orchards as immaculate, well-tended, tidy and healthy.
"Graham and Marian utilise each other's skills and play to their strengths. The Hirsts take an innovative approach in and outside the orchard gate, and create relationships wherever needed to grow their business."
Judges also commended their "stunning" social conscience, excellent staff management and their commitment and family approach to staff welfare.
A BFEA field day will be held on the Hirst family's orchard, with the date to be advised.
Winners of the 2016 East Coast Ballance Farm Environment Awards were:
Supreme Award, CB Norwood Distributors Ltd Agri-Business Management Award, East Coast Farming For The Future Award (sponsored by the Hawke's Bay Regional Council and the Gisborne District Council), Massey University Innovation Award and the PGG Wrightson People In Agriculture Award; Graham and Marian Hirst, GD and MJ Hirst Partnership, Longlands, Hastings.
Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, LIC Dairy Farm Award, Hill Laboratories Harvest Award and WaterForce Integrated Management Award; Ivan and Sue Knauf & Lewis and Mel Knauf, Wairua Farm, Maraekakaho, Hastings.
Beef + Lamb New Zealand Livestock Award; Nigel and Deirdre Tomalin, Pukeorapa Station, Nuhaka, northern Hawke's Bay.
Farm Stewardship Award in partnership with the QEII National Trust and the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust; Tim Aitken, Lucy Robertshawe, Jim Aitken and Willa Aitken, The Steyning, Tikokino, Central Hawke's Bay.