Maria Fathollahi in the new tunnel house.

On the next episode, screening 25 March 2018 at 7pm on TVNZ 1:

Maria Fathollahi and her husband Diego both immigrated to New Zealand in the same year, but from very different cultures. 

Maria grew up in South Africa before moving here with her family when she was thirteen. She met Diego three years later, when she was just 16. 

Diego, from Iran, had come out on his own aged 22.  They met in an Auckland kebab house where Diego was working. It was love at first sight. 

Both are incredibly hard workers. Diego worked several jobs while Maria studied full-time for a horticulture degree. 

Maria had always wanted a blueberry farm and when she finished her degree, Diego made her a promise: “With your knowledge and my hard work, we can turn the sand to gold.” 

Four years ago, they found a run-down avocado orchard in sandy soil at Pukenui near Houhora in the far north. They made an offer on the spot and it was theirs. They named it Tomo Orchard after a tomo – a hole in the ground by their driveway. 

Within a couple of months they had ripped out 90 old avocado trees and planted their first trial block of blueberries. 

But their first planting did not go smoothly. A week after the young plants were in the ground the Far North was hit by a severe storm. “It caused havoc,” says Maria. “With power outages for weeks, avocado trees fallen over the place, it was a mess.” 

All their new plants were under water. 

Diego Fathollahi with daughter Nelia.

“It was traumatic. In the middle of the night seven-month-pregnant me waddled down here with Diego, got our flashlights out, turned our car lights on and started pulling plants out by hand, taking them to drier ground and re-potting them – all 1400 of them.” 

The plants survived, but with Maria pregnant, Diego, a TV technician and city boy with no horticultural experience, had to learn fast. 

But newcomers to an industry come without baggage and are often innovators. During a trip to a conference in Australia, Diego found blueberries being grown in tunnel houses, something that was not done in New Zealand. 

Maria and Diego went back to their bank manager and have invested in the new system. They hope the plants won’t go dormant in winter and will keep fruiting year-round.

This is their first year of production in the tunnels and the Fathollahis are nervous. “It’s bloody scary,” laughs Maria. “It’s bloody scary and it’s exciting at the same time.” 

Maria and Diego are proud of what they have achieved so far. “Diego came to this country with nothing,” says Maria, “and now he has his own orchard.” 

Diego agrees: “You can achieve what you want if you really want to work.”

Read more about Diego and Maria's orchard here.

Find out more about growing blueberries here.





Dan Henry


Camera & Aerial Photography

Peter Young


Field Sound

Don Paulin


Editor & Colourist 

Mike Townsend


Post Production Manager

Bailey Palmer


Sound Mixer

Ian Leslie



Stephen Gallagher


Production Manager

Robyn Best



Vivienne Jeffs 


Network Executive

Vicki Keogh


Associate Producer

Dan Henry



Howard Taylor



Julian O’Brien