Or­gan­ics and bio­dy­nam­ics on the rise

The or­ganic food and agri­cul­ture in­dus­try has grown 25% over the past three years, and New Zealand is well placed to take ad­van­tage.

Element - - Planet - REBECCA REI­DER Rebecca Rei­der is an eco­log­i­cal writer and re­searcher with a pas­sion for eco-agri­cul­ture. She is the national co­or­di­na­tor of Or­ganic Wine­grow­ers New Zealand and edi­tor of the bio­dy­namic mag­a­zine Har­vests. She lives and gar­dens in Golden Bay

Once upon a time, you didn’t need to look for a “cer­ti­fied or­ganic” logo if you wanted nat­u­ral pro­duce free of toxic sprays; food sim­ply was or­ganic. In­dus­trial agri­cul­ture ended that. But now, the pen­du­lum is swing­ing back: more pi­o­neers, from su­per­mar­ket man­agers to herb gar­den­ers, are us­ing science and soul to re­dis­cover the roots of good eat­ing.

This is not some fad. In New Zealand, the or­ganic food and agri­cul­ture busi­ness has qui­etly grown 25% in the last three years, mir­ror­ing global growth, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from Or­gan­ics Aotearoa New Zealand. That’s an im­pres­sive feat in tough eco­nomic times. The rea­sons for suc­cess of­ten lie not in some graph of eco­nomic progress, how­ever, but in the sto­ries of pas­sion­ate, in­no­va­tive in­di­vid­u­als com­mit­ted to their land and health. And though most of th­ese peo­ple didn’t get into it just to make a dol­lar, many are now find­ing that be­ing or­ganic is great for busi­ness as well.

The pro­duce sec­tion

Adrian Barkla, the owner of New World Re­muera, is blunt about his mo­ti­va­tions for stock­ing one of the coun­try’s most boun­ti­ful su­per­mar­ket selec­tions of fresh or­ganic pro­duce. “I just want to eat it my­self!” He says. “So I got the range in to eat for me.”

He must be hun­gry. A year ago, the su­per­mar­ket was turn­ing over $1000 a week in fresh or­ganic pro­duce. Now that fig­ure is $30,000 a week.

In an un­usual twist, where pos­si­ble the store sells or­ganic pro­duce at the same price as con­ven­tional pro­duce, in or­der to con­vince con­sumers to try the or­ganic one. “We price or­ganic ap­ples the same as or­di­nary ap­ples, or­ganic sil­ver­beet the same as or­di­nary sil­ver­beet,” Adrian says.

In a world where supermarkets are not al­ways friendly to fam­ily farm­ers, Re­muera New World’s staff have built strong per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with or­ganic grow­ers. By tak­ing such a huge sup­ply (some­times tak­ing a grower’s whole crop) and by fol­low­ing through on their deals, the store se­cures good prices, as the or­ganic grow­ers are happy to have a re­li­able mar­ket.

Around 20 cer­ti­fied or­ganic grow­ers sup­ply the store. The

“I just want New Zealand to be or­ganic and be­lieve in them­selves that they can do it.” ADRIAN BARKLA, RE­MUERA NEWWORLD

cur­rent or­ganic win­ter vege se­lec­tion ranges from gourmet treats like cele­riac and fresh fennel, to stan­dards like parsnips, spinach and sil­ver­beet. Pro­duce comes through dis­trib­u­tors Pure­fresh Or­ganic, or straight from the farm­ers them­selves. With a bit of net­work­ing, there’s no short­age of food. “When we started to sell or­ganic pro­duce, I had to find grow­ers, but now grow­ers find us to push their pro­duce,” says pro­duce man­ager Abhi Pa­tel.

Or­ganic berryfruit, pump­kins, onions and car­rots come from True Earth Or­gan­ics in Hawkes Bay, a fam­ily farm which has be­come one of New Zealand’s largest or­ganic fresh food op­er­a­tions. Per­sim­mons come from Jackie and Alan Gray, who have been nur­tur­ing their or­ganic per­sim­mon orchard in sunny Gis­borne for 25 years.

Or­ganic grow­ers tend to be proud of what they grow. The store’s fruit grow­ers say they’ve no­ticed their fruit has be­come tastier since they’ve used or­ganic prac­tices. Carl Knapp’s pear orchard in Hawkes Bay has been or­ganic for 13 years. As a re­sult of us­ing only nat­u­ral fer­tilis­ers, he says, “I’ve no­ticed the sugar lev­els are higher be­cause the tree has to work a bit harder. That trans­lates into fruit that’s firmer and nat­u­rally sweet.” Like­wise, plum grower Ian Kid­dle no­tices his plums are slightly smaller but have more flavour than con­ven­tional plums.

But why is this su­per­mar­ket push­ing or­ganic so hard? The more peo­ple who eat or­ganic, the more will grow it – an up­ward spi­ral for ev­ery­one, Adrian Barkla says. “I can in­flu­ence the mar­ket, so that’s what I’m try­ing to do,” he says. “I just want New Zealand to be or­ganic and be­lieve in them­selves that they can do it.” In our vis­ual so­ci­ety, so much is sold on its phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. The prob­lem, as Barkla points out, is that food has come to be sold that way too. Chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers make con­ven­tional pro­duce pump up in size. But the fast growth can mean the pro­duce sim­ply bulks up on wa­ter con­tent, with­out ac­tu­ally gain­ing many nu­tri­ents – and un­bal­anced plants be­come more vul­ner­a­ble to pests, which means more pes­ti­cides have to be used. Barkla likens much con­ven­tional pro­duce to a per­son who’s had cos­metic surgery. “Con­ven­tional fruit and veg­eta­bles have toxic

pes­ti­cide sprays that are poi­sonous to us, in­creas­ing the risk to hu­mans of can­cer and other ill­nesses,” he says. “I define qual­ity by the in­side, the nu­tri­ents, the taste. Or­ganic tastes bet­ter and it’s bet­ter for your body. Your body will thank you.”

Or­ganic on the vine

“Or­ganic” and “wine” might sound an un­usual com­bi­na­tion, since wine isn’t ex­actly con­sid­ered a health food. But the or­ganic wine in­dus­try has taken off across New Zealand in re­cent years, and has be­come the coun­try’s fastest-grow­ing or­ganic in­dus­try. The amount of or­ganic vine­yard land na­tion­wide has quadru­pled since 2008. Villa Maria Es­tate is known as one of New Zealand’s big­gest wine brands – but less well known is how deeply the com­pany has com­mit­ted to or­ganic grow­ing. The com­pany’s first or­ganic vine­yard, in Hawkes Bay, earned full BioGro or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in 2007. By 2012, ap­prox­i­mately 30% of Villa’s vine­yards across the coun­try were un­der cer­ti­fied or­ganic man­age­ment.

The win­ery’s en­try into or­gan­ics was not a mar­ket­ing ploy. Owner Sir Ge­orge Fis­tonich prompted the com­pany to start look­ing at or­ganic grow­ing as early as the 1990s, when few in the wine in­dus­try were do­ing so. “He was al­ways keen on be­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble,” says Fabian Yu­kich, Villa Maria’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of winer­ies and vine­yards. “It started off with tak­ing care of the land, be­cause when we started, the mar­ket wasn’t ask­ing for it.”

How­ever, it’s not just about tak­ing care of the land. As many New Zealand wine­mak­ers have re­ported af­ter switch­ing to or­gan­ics, or­ganic grow­ing, if done well, pro­duces healthy grapes with thicker skins and com­plex flavours – which in turn pro­duces great wine. “We are very happy with the wines we are get­ting off the or­ganic blocks,” Yu­kich says. “We’re cer­tainly get­ting equal or bet­ter qual­ity.” This has paid off in awards for Villa Maria’s or­ganic mer­lot, gewürz­traminer and sauvi­gnon blanc.

Th­ese days, wine drinkers are more ready to go or­ganic, es­pe­cially over­seas. Villa Maria’s or­ganic wines are find­ing es­pe­cially will­ing mar­kets in Europe, where the pro­file of or­gan­ics is high.

Health from the earth and moon

While the world catches up with the se­crets of health that or­ganic farm­ers have known for years, some of the orig­i­nal pi­o­neers keep ex­plor­ing. This is the case of long-time bio­dy­namic pro­duc­ers like Weleda in Hawkes Bay, who grow a wide range of medic­i­nal plants for their pop­u­lar nat­u­ral health reme­dies. Weleda grows about 50 species of medic­i­nal plants on their ten lov­ingly tended hectares in Hawkes Bay. Their prod­ucts range from echi­nacea for the im­mune sys­tem to nat­u­ral tooth­pastes to mus­cle sooth­ing creams.

Weleda are cer­ti­fied bio­dy­namic, mean­ing that on top of us­ing strictly or­ganic meth­ods, they use spe­cial nat­u­ral prac­tices to boost plant vigour. Bio­dy­namic grow­ers look not just to the earth but to the heav­ens. The moon has been shown to have a strong ef­fect on plants, just as it af­fects the tides, so Weleda time their seed sowing and plant­ing with the ideal phases of the moon.

Bio­dy­nam­ics also sees each farm as a self-suf­fi­cient whole, hum­ming with di­ver­sity and pro­vid­ing for its own needs. “We con­sider our ten hectare farm is more than just grow­ing crops,” says di­rec­tor Fred Dry­burgh. Ev­ery­thing on the farm is con­nected: “We aim to be largely self-suf­fi­cient, pro­duc­ing ma­te­rial for com­post mak­ing on site. The cows are an es­sen­tial part of this. The health of our soil is cen­tral to the health and high qual­ity of our plants.” In con­trast to other or­ganic grow­ers who have gone big and high tech, our crops are ex­tremely labour in­ten­sive, us­ing low tech­nol­ogy, but with a high level of con­scious aware­ness.”

Weleda’s rep­u­ta­tion for high-in­tegrity prod­ucts, with “no nas­ties” in its in­gre­di­ent lists, has found them well-placed as more peo­ple look for nat­u­ral health ap­proaches. From small be­gin­nings in 1955, the busi­ness “has grown or­gan­i­cally (ex­cuse the pun) over the years,” says Fred Dry­burgh. “There is much more aware­ness th­ese days about or­gan­ics and sus­tain­abil­ity, the bedrock of Weleda’s foun­da­tion, so there is a real open­ness to our of­fer­ings. Along with this there are many new com­pa­nies en­ter­ing into the mar­ket. So, in­ter­est­ing times.”

“The health of our soil is cen­tral to the health and high qual­ity of our plants.” FRED DRY­BURGH, WELEDA “It started off with tak­ing care of the land, be­cause when we started, the mar­ket wasn’t ask­ing for it.” FABIANYUKICH, VILLA MARIA WINES

Adrian Barkla

Photo: War­ren Buck­land

Cal­en­dula flow­ers at Weleda’s bio­dy­namic gar­dens

in Hawkes Bay.

Photo: Paul Est­court

Fabian Yu­kich of Villa Maria Wines.

Photo: sup­plied

Or­ganic mer­lot grapes in Villa Maria’s Hawkes Bay vine­yard ready for

har­vest­ing.

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