A family business

The sweet fragrance of roses and strawberries wafting across the fields is the unmistakable smell of summer. Large trees burst with bird song, and all around the Somerfield Berryfruit Farm in Oropi, rows of plants are dotted with juicy red berries.

At the main packhouse, Richard and Valerie Somerfield have just said goodbye to two minibus loads of people from a local retirement home.

Nearby, their daughter Trish is topping cones with fresh fruit ice cream for eager buyers.

It had been an unusual morning so far. The day started out with the expectation of freezing much of that morning’s picking, as the local markets didn’t want any fruit. That quickly changed with one phone call. The markets were running low on strawberries and needed to replenish.

Richard and Valerie started the berry farm around 45 years ago.

Berryfruit growing commenced at Somerfields in 1970, when Valerie and Richard planted boysenberries on their farm. Two years later, they planted strawberries, and over the following years have also planted blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Family owned and operated, many of their grandchildren enjoy working on the farm over the summer holidays.

“The strawberries are Trish’s now,” says Richard.

“When we started, I had met a strawberry grower who said he was going to plant some boysenberries.

“So I went home to Valerie and said I think it’s time we planted. We’ve been growing strawberries ever since. We started off the first year with 12,000 plants, and for many years we’ve been growing 75,000. We haven’t thought of getting any bigger, because it’s enough for a family group to handle and we quite like being a family business that employs mostly local people.

“At one stage we were thinking of getting out of it because we got too old, and we asked Trish if she’d be interested.

“She sort of said ‘no’, but it wasn’t many months before she came back and had changed my mind.”

Richard and Valerie, their son Mark who grows kiwifruit, and Trish, all live within about a 300m radius of the farm. Another son, Rob, arguably New Zealand’s top rose breeder, lives in Te Puna.

There are about 27,000 roses - about half of what Rob produces each year - also growing at Somerfield.

Growing along the driveway to the berry  packhouse are more than 20 rose varieties that Rob has bred himself.

During the berryfruit harvest season, which runs from Labour Weekend to around mid-January depending on the weather, the farm is open from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week.

“People come all day long,” says Richard.

“They can buy or pick.”

The Somerfields grow the Camarosa variety of strawberry.

“It’s a beautiful strawberry. It’s red right through, keeps well, you can pick it when it’s ripe and it will keep for days. And they’re huge.

“Years ago, people used to grow Captain Cook and Talisman. When we started, the main ones were Cambridge Favourite and Red Gauntlet, which were nice strawberries but very rain tender.

“A shower of rain and the skin could go soft.

“Then we went through a whole lot of others, like Pajaro, before we got into Camarosa.”

Richard and Valerie first met when Richard’s dad, a bank manager, got a job for Richard with Valerie’s parents in Nelson. She was 17 and he was 18.

They were married three years later.

“We had Rob, and then Gary, who was born with Downes Syndrome,” says Trish. “Mark came next, and then Trish. I had three sons within two-and-a-half years, then I had a gorgeous daughter and the boys thought she was just Christmas.”

Sadly, Gary died at the age of nine, due to a hole in his heart and leukaemia.

“He woke up one morning with bruises on his arms,” says Richard. “Valerie took him to the doctor, they put him in hospital and he died that night.

“We didn’t know there was a thing wrong with him until we saw the bruises.”

“He wasn’t in pain,” adds Valerie. “I would have known if he was in pain. I boiled him an egg for breakfast and that particular morning he wanted another one, so I made him one. It was the last thing I did for him. I often think of that.”

Richard was president of the IHC for 15 years, and a member for 49 years, only stopping because the Oropi community wanted him to chair the Oropi Hall refurbishment project. He’s also been the Berryfruit NZ president for about four years.

Before the war their property was owned by Arnold Shanks, who went off to fight in World War Two and was captured and spent five years in a prison camp.

The original house, which has since burned down, was the social centre of Oropi.

“We bought the place before the new house was finished, just in time to choose the wallpaper and carpet,” recalls Richard, commenting that their carpet came from a young Barry Muir. at Greerton Furnishing.

The berryfruit farm is open right up to the evening of Christmas Eve, and Valerie, who makes and sells jams, has put her own favourite recipes into a brochure for people to take away. Ambrosia, cheesecake, mixed berry cheesecake – there are so many delicious ideas.

During winter, Trish works as a contract grafter for avocado, feijoa and persimmon orchardists, but loves working back on the family farm.

She smiles at her parents.

“I have two experts to teach me how to do it, I get to work with mum and dad, and my brother is a local so it’s really good.”

She has grandchildren herself, with another due this week. Until Richard’s mother died, there were five generations of this remarkable and well-loved Somerfield family helping bring strawberry delight to the community.