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.
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.”
◀ Deb Grant picks up a crate of tomatoes in the packhouse.
◀ 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 right).
▴ Kakanui Tomatoes ready for the supermarkets.