The per­fect south­ern tomato

Most New Zealan­ders do not head south to es­cape the win­ter, but that’s ex­actly what Cal­lum and Deb Grant have done.

NZ Grower - - Contents - Story and pho­tos by Karen Tre­bil­cock

From Welling­ton to Kakanui to grow toma­toes.

They moved to the tiny coastal town of Kakanui, 15 min­utes south of Oa­maru, in Novem­ber 2015 buy­ing a tomato grow­ing busi­ness.

From Welling­ton’s win­ter storms they have ended up spend­ing their days in three glasshouses kept be­tween 22 de­grees Cel­sius and 25 de­grees Cel­sius for ripen­ing toma­toes by midJuly.

“When our first win­ter came I went ‘just bring it on’,” Deb said. “But the cli­mate has been won­der­ful here. It is only the low light lev­els that cause us prob­lems.”

They’re the fur­thest south com­mer­cial grow­ers of toma­toes in the coun­try that they know of. The next clos­est is at Lee­ston just south of Christchurch.

And while $2,000 a week worth of coal keeps the plants toasty warm in win­ter, light lev­els at the end of June are only at 200 joules.

“This win­ter has been bad too be­cause we’ve had a lot of dull days, a lot of rain and a lot of frosts, un­usual weather com­bi­na­tions for North Otago.”

“We’re re­ally at the mercy of the weather,” Cal­lum said.

Cal­lum had an of­fice job in Welling­ton but both were look­ing for some­thing else. Cal­lum had seen the tomato busi­ness ad­ver­tised on the in­ter­net but dis­counted it at first.

“I thought I couldn’t see Deb­o­rah do­ing that and didn’t say any­thing to her, and then she saw it a cou­ple of months later on the in­ter­net as well and brought it up.”

And for Cal­lum, a fourth gen­er­a­tion or­chardist from Have­lock North, grow­ing a crop on one hectare “felt re­ally small”.

“I was still think­ing like an or­chardist so I was pretty cau­tious at first.”

But the cou­ple de­cided to make the move and with their aged cat Boomer and daugh­ters Laura, now 13, and Molly, now 10, left the big city and big schools for Kakanui, pop­u­la­tion 400, and a school of fewer than 40 pupils.

Al­most two years later they are very much part of the com­mu­nity, do­nat­ing toma­toes to the lo­cal food bank and help­ing the scouts fundraise to go to jam­boree by let­ting them come and take the grow­bags to sell at the end of the sea­son.

They bought the busi­ness from Graeme and Faye Or­mandy who, af­ter hav­ing it for 38 years, re­tired to

Oa­maru. Graeme still pops in ev­ery so of­ten to see how they are do­ing.

He was es­pe­cially sur­prised to hear about the flood­ing near the end of July.

“He said it was the first time he had ever known the glasshouses to flood af­ter a rain, which shows just how bad it was. We’ve thought of some con­tin­gency plans for the fu­ture to stop it hap­pen­ing.”

But the toma­toes and the 24 electric pumps that keep them warm, wa­tered and fed, sur­vived just fine and on the Mon­day af­ter the Fri­day night rain, Deb was out pick­ing.

She picks twice a week in the win­ter and early spring and three times a week in sum­mer, grad­ing the toma­toes in the pack­house on­site. If her two daugh­ters aren’t help­ing her she calls in ca­su­als from Kakanui.

“It seems just about every­one in Kakanui has worked in these glasshouses at some time of their lives,” she said.

“And you just can’t get some­one to come in and start pick­ing. You have to train them. You have to pick on colour and with the light com­ing through the glass it can be bru­tal on the eyes.”

Help­ing Cal­lum string up the plants and re­move leaves is full-time em­ployee Rex Hill who has worked there for 20 years and whose knowl­edge has proved in­valu­able.

The Grants’ main crop is Avalantino, a cock­tail tomato which han­dles the cli­matic chal­lenges well and ac­cord­ing to Deb “is just de­li­cious”.

“It grows like a weed, send­ing up lots of lat­er­als,” Cal­lum said.

They have also grown Dia­mantino which is a 50 – 60g or 60 – 70g tomato, but have found the plants can sulk. They’re tri­alling En­deav­our and Max­eeza this sea­son, which grow a sim­i­lar size fruit to Dia­mantino, to see if they will do bet­ter.

“Max­eeza may be a bit tall for us. We don’t have the tallest of wires.”

Seeds are sent to Zealan­dia Hor­ti­cul­ture to be grown into plants which ar­rive in Kakanui about the third week in May. >

They have 2,200 square me­tres un­der glass, giv­ing them the abil­ity to have 7,500 stems.

Two tomato plants share a grow­bag, each hav­ing two stems, and later in the sea­son a third stem is grown from one of the plants mak­ing a to­tal of five stems per bag.

The heads of the plants are taken out at the end of Fe­bru­ary and the final pick­ing is done by the end of March.

“Graeme used to plant a lit­tle bit later than us and we might start do­ing the same, due to low light and the coal price in­creases,” Cal­lum said.

“We’ll just see how this sea­son goes.”

John Thomp­son of Bio­force ad­vises them on all things hy­dro­ponic and is al­ways only a phone call away if help is needed.

They spray for fun­gal dis­eases when they have to and the par­a­sitic wasp En­car­sia takes care of the white­fly, al­though they have found it is not

as ef­fec­tive in win­ter and have used yel­low sticky traps this year as well which have worked.

“It re­ally has to be 25 de­grees Cel­sius or above for En­car­sia to breed.”

Bum­ble­bees do the pol­li­na­tion work and ev­ery six weeks new card­board box hives ar­rive from BioBees.

“That day we can al­ways guar­an­tee the mail will get de­liv­ered on time. The postie doesn’t like boxes of bees buzzing away in their van,” Cal­lum said.

“We’re not or­ganic, be­cause the toma­toes are grow­ing in hy­dro­pon­ics, but we are close to it. We try to use the best of both worlds re­ally,” Deb said.

An old but “grunty” boiler uses Kai Point Coal which comes from near Bal­clutha. The heated wa­ter runs through metal pipes laid above the floor of the glasshouses, giv­ing off needed warmth year round.

The pipes are also used as rails for car­ry­ing the trol­leys for plant work and pick­ing.

The hy­dro­ponic wa­ter is also heated. Kakanui is on Oa­maru town wa­ter and the Grants have fil­ters that take ev­ery­thing out they don’t want.

“We re­cy­cle all of our wa­ter too, so no wa­ter goes off the farm.”

The tomato plants at the end of the sea­son have gone to Oa­maru’s green waste plant but new coun­cil charges may put a stop to it.

How­ever the leaves, taken off daily, are com­posted and dug into the prop­erty’s pad­dock and this year they’re tri­alling grow­ing beetroot there which will save Cal­lum hav­ing to mow the grass.

“We’ve got no idea if it will be suc­cess­ful but beetroot is what has been sug­gested to us so we’ll see. We might end up ro­tary hoe­ing the whole lot in.”

The toma­toes go to MG Mar­ket­ing in ei­ther Dunedin or Christchurch and from there into al­most all of the south­ern su­per­mar­kets.

Cal­lum is on the phone with the MG staff most morn­ings and both he and Deb make sure they pop in and talk to them face-to-face ev­ery few weeks. They also visit the su­per­mar­kets to see how their prod­uct looks on the shelves.

“We try to lis­ten as well to what peo­ple are say­ing to each other as they put our toma­toes into their trol­leys,” Deb said.

“Our rep­u­ta­tion is ev­ery­thing.”

“Kakanui toma­toes have been fa­mous in Dunedin for years so we have to make sure it stays that way,” Cal­lum said.

On their side is their abil­ity to get fruit that is picked one day into shop­pers’ su­per­mar­ket trol­leys the next.

“It’s not go­ing via Auck­land or any­where else. It goes straight from the farm to the mar­ket.”

They’ve been im­pressed with how both of their daugh­ters have taken a role in the busi­ness, help­ing out af­ter school and in the hol­i­days.

“Laura can drive the trac­tors and the fork­lift. They wouldn’t get that sort of ex­pe­ri­ence if we were still liv­ing in Welling­ton,” Cal­lum said.

“They’re cer­tainly both great pack­ers,” Deb said.

Whether ei­ther of them will take on the fam­ily busi­ness, or go into hor­ti­cul­ture by them­selves, or fol­low Cal­lum’s side of the fam­ily and be­come or­chardists, will be up to them.

“They cer­tainly are learn­ing how hard it is and the prac­ti­cal­ity of it all.”

◀ One of the three Kakanui glasshouses (top), Cal­lum and Deb Grant in one of their three glasshouses (mid­dle), the En­car­sia bio­con­trol for white­fly on a tomato plant stem (bot­tom left), their main crop tomato – the cock­tail tomato Avalantino (bot­tom...

◀ Deb Grant picks up a crate of toma­toes in the pack­house.

▴ Kakanui Toma­toes ready for the su­per­mar­kets.

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