Leaderbrand - Covered Farming Project

June 2022

New greenhouses will make this family owned company more sustainable.

Owned by the founding McPhail family, LeaderBrand has farms in Gisborne, Waikato, and Canterbury, growing about 3,500ha of fresh produce each year for process, domestic and international customers. Supplying partners, including Countdown, Foodstuffs, and Subway, LeaderBrand employs 200 permanent staff, with an additional 300 seasonal staff through summer harvesting. Productivity targets never stops: A big day of spinach harvesting yields 10 tonnes. 


Not even a global pandemic could stop LeaderBrand begin construction on greenhouses covering 11ha of home soil in Gisborne. In October 2019 the regional economic and development unit, Kanoa, loaned LeaderBrand $15m for the project, called Gisborne Covered Farming Production (GCP).


The greenhouses will make the family-owned company more sustainable by protecting the in-ground crops against weather, creating more consistent product and securing year-round jobs. It will also significantly cut fertiliser and water usage while protecting the soil structure.


It will revolutionise the way LeaderBrand farms, CEO Richard Burke says. “Simply put, the Gisborne Covered Farming Production project will let us grow crops faster and more sustainably too. Growing produce under cover means we can mitigate bad weather and grow more consistent supply as a result, not to mention securing more jobs at our Gisborne plot throughout the year,” he says.


On the recommendation of the greenhouse supplier, Richel Group from France, LeaderBrand appointed Agrikol, a technical construction team from south-east Europe to install the technology.


Local and national suppliers have also played a significant role in preparing the site and in ongoing construction. Site prep for the main ‘house structure’ started in the summer of 2020 and the company initially hoped to be operational by the end of 2021, but Covid-19 had an almost immediate impact.


Lockdowns, international shipping delays and border restrictions severely affected timelines but spring 2021 the prep work on the housing was done. Local teams laid concrete for a distribution area, storage and irrigation shed, plus a 40 million litre dam and a 1 million litre treated-water tank, making the whole facility self-sufficient for water. Rainfall collected from the roof will be stored in the dam and used in the greenhouses year-round.


Richard Burke says the greenhouses will help protect the company from climate change, including damaging storms like the weather bomb that hit Gisborne in early November 2021. The storm hit the company’s spinach production and rocket lettuce crop and put corn supply at risk too.

The 2021 weather bomb was not the worst LeaderBrand had seen but weather events like it were becoming more frequent with climate change, Burke says.


“We know that agricultural practices are going to have to adapt to the country’s increasingly variable climate and it’s our hope that our new greenhouse will ensure that massive weather events of the future won’t be as destructive as this one.”


With farms in Matamata, Pukekohe and the South Island, LeaderBrand does have alternative production sources but the greenhouse will be a breakthrough. “It will be a massive change to the way we farm but we really do think this style of farming will be the way of the future. These type of weather events aren’t going to stop so adapting and changing is the only way forward to ensure that we can continue to feed Kiwis all year round with fresh produce as well as mitigate the environmental impact of all that water and soil running out to sea,” Burke says.