Rattled & stirred
A series of natural disasters since taking over a Canterbury greenhouse growing business 18 months ago means Anthony Carter and partner Jemima Smith are looking forward to the relative calm of experiencing a “normal season”.
New greenhouse growers hope for a“normal season” after quakes and floods
Since purchasing the business, north of Christchurch in June 2016, their greenhouses have been severely damaged, first by the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake then July flooding.
The combined effects of earthquake damage and a wet season meant they lost 70% of the crop in the worst effected greenhouse in their first year. This was despite yields being 10 tonnes up in mid-January, compared with the previous year. “But by the end of January it started to rain and the damaged ground, greenhouses, gutters and drainage became an issue,” says Anthony.
Trading as Harbour Head Growers, the couple have four twin-skin greenhouses covering 7000sq metres, with a Priva computer controlling irrigation, feeding and heating systems. They predominantly grow capsicums, which make up 90% of their crop, as well as eggplant, tomatoes and chillies. It is Anthony’s first venture into horticulture after emigrating from England in 2011.
The Kaikoura earthquake not only damaged their greenhouses, but also their adjacent house. “Almost everything that could be damaged was. Our house is off half its piles. So the house will have to be lifted and its foundations redone.
“The quake lifted or dropped most of the greenhouse foundations, twisting and buckling the frame, pulled apart most of the guttering on the greenhouses and the floor became a Mexican wave. It split the radiators in one greenhouse. It ruptured water pipes under the ground. It blew out the back end of the boiler, so we are currently leasing one until it can be replaced.”
Damage caused meant the greenhouses and equipment all had to be taken apart, relevelled, restraightened and rebraced.
As little remedial action could be done while the greenhouses were fully planted the couple soldiered on, with a wet season compounding problems.
The uneven floor meant water pooled rather than draining away on a slope.
While they kept production going as long as possible, plants became diseased and were ripped out early. “Too much water in the greenhouse led to botrytis, fungus and rot and plants started dying.” Normally plants are removed at the end of May for early June replanting.
The greenhouses had to be completely emptied so earth moving equipment could Laser level the floors. Then the building contractors could start work on fixing the greenhouses. Work was near completion and all floor coverings were down when a deluge in July meant a month’s rain fell in one day, leaving all the greenhouses under water. This was made more difficult as the trolleys and gantries are used directly on the floor rather than on rails which meant that all the flooring had to be ripped up and tents with dehumidifiers and heaters put up inside the greenhouses to dry the flooded ground. This was to prevent any future health and safety issues, where gantries would have tipped over in the rutted ground.
“The first greenhouse is usually filled by the beginning of June, but this year it wasn’t planted until mid-August. The last house was only planted in mid-October, so we have lost four months of production.”
Insurers FMG were incredibly supportive, said Anthony. “As we were so far behind, FMG gave volunteers from its office a day off so that they could help get the greenhouses ready for the plants. I’ve never seen that before.” The National Training Academy in Christchurch sent a mini-van of >
students for a couple of days. Friends and family also pitched in.
“We did a 12-day set up in four to five days with the help of everyone.
“The nursery had been holding on to our plant stock until we were ready. As these were only in 10x10 rockwool cubes, the plants were 800mm in height, root bound and fruit was already forming.
“We should be in full production, but at Labour Weekend we are only on our third pick from house two and the other houses are still not ready to pick. However, produce to date has been good size and quality.
“We are still trying to get everything back to normal. It’s very frustrating. We’ve had an earthquake, flood and rebuilt most of everything, so if we can get through all that and keep smiling it’s got to be a good thing.” In contrast, the growing operation received little damage during the Christchurch earthquakes when previously owned by Liz and Chris Sinnott, a former chairman of the covered crops advisory group. The Sinnotts remain “on call” to provide advice when required.
As well as the colour range of red, green, yellow and orange capsicums, they also grow mini sweet vine peppers. “It’s a perfect little lunchbox item, or snack. There are very few seeds in them and the flavour is amazing. It’s very sweet and pleasant to eat.”
Eggplant was a small, but growing market, while chilli production was very small scale. “It’s more for personal enjoyment. Not so much for the heat as the flavour.” Apart from a small roadside stall all produce is sold wholesale. Anthony is originally from Devon in England, where his family has generations of involvement in both the farming and fishing sectors. Farming involved a mix of dairy, beef and arable. He set up his own IT computer servicing business before being drawn to the sea. “I bought my own fishing vessel, netting and potting for sole, cod and whelks in southwest England and Wales. I was also on other boats all around the coast.” However, after about five years he was ready for a change.
“I was working too many hours in England and needed a break. We came out to New Zealand for a month or two and really liked it. We looked all around, but decided to base ourselves near Christchurch.” By coincidence, Anthony arrived on one of the first flights after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, taking a role at a logistics business. His children, then aged two and three-and-a-half years followed six months later once everything was set up and ready for them.
“Work started slowing down three to four years after the earthquakes and I never wanted it to be long term anyway. I had never done any indoor greenhouse growing so did a lot of research and took the plunge with Harbour Head Growers.” His partner Jemima left her teaching career to help with the business, and take on the running of the pack shed during the first season. “She has been a great support and I couldn’t have managed without her.
“I have enjoyed learning a completely different side of farming. It’s good to get into hydroponics and the technical side.” Anthony has also taken a role on the covered crops advisory group, which he said was an opportunity to see “all the work that goes on behind the scenes”.
“We haven’t had a normal season, so I am looking forward to having one.”
◀ (Bottom) Anthony Carter with mini sweet vine peppers. “It’s a perfect little lunchbox item, or snack.”
▴ (Above and left) Greenhouse planting is up to four months behind because of repairs needed for earthquake and flood damage.
▴ Mini sweet vine peppers. _____________________