Whether it’s on the roller derby circuit for Moana Roller Derby’s A-team or stilt walking and juggling with Circus in a Flash, Danni van der Heijden can lay claim to some mad skills. But the University of Waikato alumna used a different skill set when she was named 2018 Bay of Plenty Young Fruit Grower in February.
With a key role in avocado services at Trevelyan’s Pack and Coolhouse in Te Puke, and holding a Bachelor of Science (BSc), Danni was well-rehearsed in how to run a successful orchard.
“Avocados are my area of strength,” says Danni. “But with the variety of practical challenges in the competition, I called in some help for the things I had less experience in.”
One of her growers coached her on the finer points of handling a tractor while a colleague lent her a chainsaw to dis- and reassemble. The preparation held Danni in good stead. Winning five individual challenge awards and the speech competition secured her the overall title – only the second female to take the top spot. Now she’s gearing up to represent the Bay at the Young Grower of the Year in August in Napier. Last year’s regionals winner Erin Atkinson, who Danni came runner-up to in 2017 and went on to win the Young Grower title, has met with Danni to offer advice and support for the national competition.
“The challenges will include fruit and vegetables so it will be a real test for me,” says Danni, “But one I’m looking forward to.”
Danni’s also taking on a new career challenge this week. She will join avocado exporter AVOCO in a newly created role as Technical Representative. Undertaking research projects and trials on-orchard and post-harvest will be her main remit and she’s looking forward to travelling abroad to research overseas markets too.
As a child, despite loving her vegetable garden in the family’s backyard of Mangere Bridge in Auckland, Danni had no idea she’d become a young leader of the horticulture industry. She was the first in her family to attend university and chose Waikato for its reputation in the sciences and picturesque Hamilton campus with everything close to hand.
While Danni admits she always enjoyed figuring things out and making new discoveries, at first she was unsure what science to pursue. Eventually she settled on Biology and Chemistry majors supported by Physics and Maths. The dedicated student scooped numerous awards including the Science Admission Fees Scholarship, Chemistry Prize, Physics Prize, Brian Perry Charitable Trust and the Variety Gold Heart scholarships. Danni says she remains “incredibly grateful” for the financial assistance and support through her study years and says the degree prepared her well.
“The BSc gave me an extensive background knowledge of the industry and taught me how to learn,” she enthuses.
Post-graduation Danni had a stint in the Netherlands, where her family originated from, before returning to Auckland where she took up some casual work with Watercare. When she landed a job with NZ Avocado as a Research Associate, she relocated to Tauranga and enjoyed the lifestyle and variety of work that horticulture offered. Danni started work with Trevelyan’s nearly two years ago and will miss her tight-knit team, but is excited to join AVOCO where she’s keen to make a positive difference in the New Zealand avocado industry.
“Now that I’m part of the horticulture industry I don’t see myself leaving. The reality is even better than the expectation,” she says.