Pint-sized GM packs a punch

By Sonia Campbell

When Tablelands banana grower Dennis Howe was looking to employ someone to help manage his family’s ever-growing agribusiness, he took a punt on pint-sized accountant Kim Mastin.

She was 27, had little background in agriculture, but had an honesty and directness that Mr Howe admired.

Seven years later, Kim is the Howe Farming Group’s trusted general manager (GM) and has helped Mr Howe steer his second-generation farming company from a humble family-based operation into one of the country’s largest agricultural producers it is today.

“I guess, if you go back to that period (eight years ago), we didn’t really have any structure within the organisation,” Mr Howe said.

“We needed to go from family farm to a professional enterprise and Kim has helped us transition into that.”

Initially employed by Howe Farming as an accountant, within six months Ms Mastin was promoted to GM.

While always striving towards improved productivity rates, Ms Mastin’s main focus was on implementing systematic workplace health and safety procedures, and helping the company adopt a formal organisational structure, appointing managers and supervisors in each company sector.

“I came on board when there were about 200 employees and these guys, at the time, took a gamble to back me,” Ms Mastin said.

“There was obvious directions where the company was going and we needed to get things up and running like policies and procedures and certain structures had to be put in place.”

Today, Howe Farming — which has been operating for the past 40 years — employs close to 400 staff, making it the largest agribusiness on the Atherton Tablelands. Bananas account for more than 70% [GS1] of their production, with avocados, coffee, sugar cane and blueberries making up the remaining crops.

Ms Mastin’s approach to her job is not always typical. The mother of three young boys engages her workforce through several unique team building exercises, including yoga stretching techniques and weekly “toolbox talks”.

“I try to look outside the square. On a Monday morning we get revved up and warmed up and ready for the week. We have a toolbox talk every Monday, and that explains what the expectations are for that week and anything that they need to focus on. I think communication’s a big thing. So everyone is clear on what the instructions are and what they have to do and I suppose that comes back to productivity as well.”

Ms Mastin’s mindset works in well with Howe Farming, which has been at the forefront of innovation and diversification in the agricultural industry for the past 20 years.

Last year, the group purchased Yuruga Nursery on the Atherton Tablelands, along with its parent company Clonal Solutions Australia, as the company’s focus grows towards increased clonal propagation and research and development of disease-resistant banana varieties.

“We’ve always used tissue culture for bananas from our very first crop. In fact, in 20 years we’ve only ever planted one paddock using bits. But we recently acquired Yuruga Nursery and Clonal Solutions, because of the tissue culture lab, just to secure its future.”

“A group of us are actively involved in a research program overseas investigating strains with resistance to TR4 (Panama Tropical Race 4).

“Currently, one of the more tolerant (TR4 varieties) has come from a traditional breeding program in Honduras. It’s a huge task to breed a new variety, it can’t be done in Australia with our labour costs, because it is very labour intensive.”

Mr Howe and Ms Mastin said the continued stabilisation of the industry in the wake of the Far Northern Panama TR4 outbreak would continue to be a large focus for growers.

And, you get the feeling this dynamic duo will take it all in their stride. Although daily work-life isn’t always smooth sailing for the pair, who admit they don’t always see eye-to-eye.

“We have our moments, but I think we compliment each other in many ways,” Ms Mastin said.

Mr Howe adding, “She’s pig headed. Very pig headed at times. But she’s totally trustworthy and she’s treated the business like it’s her own.”