Innovation

‘Saviour of the kumara’ dies, aged 85

Fay Gock, a Chinese refugee market gardener who, along with her husband Joe, “saved the kumara” in the 1960s and was awarded the (other) Bledisloe Cup, has died aged 85. Gilbert Wong reports.

These days Fay and Joe Gock would be agricultural scientists or successful entrepreneurs. Probably both.

But when they arrived in Auckland in the 1940s as refugees from the Japanese invasion of China during World War Two, anti-Chinese restrictions meant they couldn’t even own a house or land.

So they became market gardeners, like many of their compatriots. And it was as market gardeners that Fay and Joe developed temperature-controlled kumara storage, patented polystyrene boxes to export ice-packed premium fresh broccoli and rhubarb, introduced the first seedless watermelons, put the first produce stickers on fruit and vegetables and, most importantly, developed a black rot-resistant kumara which saved the Northland kumara crop in the 1960s.

They called it “experimenting” not “science”.

Fay Gock was born in China, arriving in New Zealand in 1940 as a child with her mother.

After meeting and marrying Joe in the 1950s, the couple went into market gardening, leasing a block of land in Mangere and eventually expanding until they owned 140 acres (56 hectares).

Fay was as comfortable driving the tractor as her husband, planting and harvesting the vegetables, and working alongside him on the development of new crops, and innovative storage and transport methods.

In the early 1960s, they donated their “Owairaka Red” strain of disease-resistant kumara to the Northland kumara farmers after their crops were devastated by brown scurvy and black rot.

The diseases make kumara taste and smell disgusting. Fay and Joe’s new variety basically saved the New Zealand kumara.

Joe and Fay Gock receive the Bledisloe Cup from then Prime Minister John Key. Photo: Gock family

Meanwhile, as the business grew – the Gocks were at one stage the biggest kumara market gardeners in the country – they needed a way to keep the product fresh before sending it out to market.

Fay and Joe experimented with different temperatures and humidity settings for their storage sheds before hitting on a technique that reduced crop loss from as much as 50 percent to less than 1 percent.

“When we put the kumara in the room we needed to heat it up to 85 degrees for one week. That would cure and heal up all the wounds,” Joe Gock told authors Lily Lee and Ruth Lam for the book Sons of the soil: Chinese market gardeners in New Zealand.

“Straight after that, we would bring the temperature down to 65 degrees and hold it at that temperature. The humidity is about 85 percent. If the humidity is not high, then the kumara will shrivel up.”

In 2013, the couple were awarded the Bledisloe Cup for outstanding services to horticulture. The cup, a near-likeness of the namesake cup for trans-Tasman rugby rivalry, was first presented by Lord Bledisloe in 1931.

Fay Gock died in Auckland just before Christmas, aged 85. She is survived by Joe and three daughters Jayne, Virginia and Raewyn.

Up until her death, she and Joe ran one of the few remaining market garden businesses still operating in Mangere. Where once hundreds of market gardens operated by New Zealand Chinese grew fresh produce, the Gocks’ carefully tended fields on the banks of the Pukaki Inlet are today entirely surrounded by housing subdivisions.

Market gardening wasn’t an easy job. Describing her early experience of married life, living in a barn on their Mangere land, she once told a reporter: “For many years, we were up to our noses in debt. It’s not just pansies and roses – even the roses have prickles.”

And it was never going to turn them into millionaires. “It’s not a job for making money – there never was big bucks in it,” Fay said. “Growing healthy food is a service to all mankind.”

But it did turn the couple into film stars, at least in a minor way. In 2016, New Zealand director Felicity Morgan-Rhind of Diva Productions made a short documentary called How Mr and Mrs Gock Saved the Kumara.

Fay Gock, from 'How Mr and Mrs Gock Saved the Kumara'. Photo: Diva Productions

Speaking after Fay’s death, Morgan-Rhind told Newsroom about the days the film crew spent with Fay and Joe Gock.

“Their resilience, intelligence and passion for the land, and each other, were truly impressive. Being in Fay’s company made me feel connected to a bigger, better world.

“Her lens on life was infectiously positive. She filled every frame with laughter and wisdom. It was a deep privilege to know her and share her story with the world.”

Gilbert Wong is an Auckland-based writer and editor

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