30 Sep 2023

Barker's of Geraldine thriving after linking up with French jam maker

From Country Life, 11:37 am on 30 September 2023
Barkers of Geraldine

Michael Barker with his parents Gillian and Anthony Photo: Supplied

For over half a century, Barker's of Geraldine has been delighting the palates of Kiwis with its jams, syrups, sauces, and an array of other condiments and beverages.

This iconic family business, with roots firmly planted in the heart of New Zealand's South Island, has been a household name since the late 1960s.

Founded by Anthony Barker and his wife Gillian, Barker's began as a humble venture, aimed at supplementing their farm income.

Little did they know that their foray into the world of culinary delights would evolve into a thriving, internationally recognised brand.

"We've got some of the early gear that we used in the winemaking process back in the 1970s," Michael Barker, son of the founders, recalled during a visit from Country Life.

Barkers of Geraldine

Michael stands proudly in front of the busy food processing factory Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

"My father struck upon the idea of making wines. He knew he could make all the equipment himself, and he knew how to make wine because he'd been making wine since he was a boy. That's how Barker's wines was born."

Their inventive spirit is evident in the exhibits at the Geraldine Museum. A full-size replica of Anthony Barker stirring a copper laundry tub filled with elderberries, heated with his homemade diesel burner and a vacuum cleaner venturi blast system, serves as a testament to their ingenuity.

While the Barkers started as sheep farmers in Pleasant Valley, just 8km from Geraldine, their journey into winemaking marked the beginning of their culinary adventure.

Barkers of Geraldine

The early days. Anthony Barker and his children bottle fruit wine Photo: Supplied

"The real success was as a visitor attraction because everyone that came got offered numerous tastings of an ever-expanding variety of very extremely interesting wines, liqueurs, and aperitifs," Michael explained.

"They got given a guided tour around the very interesting engineering structures and vessels and contraptions. It was the biggest and most significant tourist attraction we had in its time, with 20,000 visitors."

The visitor attraction not only put the Barker name on the map but also gave them a platform to expand their product range, Michael says.

"It certainly got us started and gave us a launching pad for when we launched our black currant syrup and the jams and chutneys and all the products you see in the supermarkets today," he added.

Barkers of Geraldine

Quality control on the jam line Photo: Supplied

Michael recalls helping out in the shop from the age of around 13. He then went to Lincoln University with plans of going overseas after, to pursue a winemaking degree.

"But when I got back from Lincoln, I never really left because there was a need for me to help. And I spent 10 years totally engrossed and trying to build a business which was very fragile in those days."

Fifty years on from the innovative start, Barker's is the largest employer in Geraldine, with generations of families working in the factory.

Barkers of Geraldine

Getting ready for the next batch Photo: Supplied

And the site which many travel to work in each day sits on the original farm of Anthony and Gillian Barker.

The old farmhouse which Michael grew up in is now the office of the Barker's enterprise.

There, at the factory, Kim Whitman explains there are a number of growers all throughout New Zealand who supply to the brand.

"We can process fruit in many different ways and it means that we can have that innovative outcome for the consumer," Whitman, the fruit procurement and research development manager says.

With a staggering 800 different finished goods, the task of managing such a diverse product line is nothing short of a challenge.

Barkers of Geraldine

Kim Whitman Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Barkers of Geraldine

Research and development never stops at Barker's Photo: Supplied

"We use around 1100 different raw materials. So in product development, it's the biggest pantry you can ever think of for making new recipes."

Barker's doesn't just cater to consumers; they serve three distinct markets.

"We put products in supermarkets, which will be a branded product that you see, as well as foodservice and cafes with their food service ranges.

"And then also industrial customers. So a lot of the product that comes out of Barker's will be used in other products that you see in supermarkets."

As Barker's continues to evolve and innovate, one thing remains certain: the legacy of this family business, rooted in a passion for innovation, commitment to quality, and a sense of community, will continue to grace Kiwi pantries and tables for generations to come.

Barkers of Geraldine

Sugary waste water from the factory goes into two treatment ponds before ending up as irrigation on a neighboring farm Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Barkers of Geraldine

The view back to the factory from the ponds Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Barkers of Geraldine

A man-made wetland breaks down discharge from the factory bathrooms Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Barkers of Geraldine

Sheep graze in a paddock beside the wetland Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes