South­land… Hor­ti­cul­ture's sleep­ing gi­ant _______________

South­land is ar­guably a sleep­ing gi­ant when it comes to hor­ti­cul­ture – and that’s the way the re­gion’s top veg­etable pro­duc­ers like it.

NZ Grower - - FEATURE -

Many peo­ple in the re­gion and many more around the coun­try are sur­prised when told about the scale of some of the veg­etable grow­ers op­er­at­ing in the south – in­clud­ing a com­pany pro­duc­ing 50% of New Zealand’s parn­sips.

Hor­ti­cul­ture is es­ti­mated by Ven­ture South­land to be worth $50 mil­lion to the South­land econ­omy an­nu­ally.

The re­gion has a long tra­di­tion for grow­ing crops – rang­ing from fod­der crops and root veg­eta­bles, wheat, bar­ley and oats, flow­ers and flower bulbs, nuts and berries.

The tem­per­ate cli­mate and good soils re­sult in higher crop yields with low dis­ease pres­sures com­pared to many other re­gions.

Pota­toes, car­rots and parsnips are the main veg­eta­bles grown com­mer­cially in the re­gion. There are some smallscale farm­ing op­er­a­tions grow­ing medic­i­nal herbs, nut crops, cut flow­ers and berryfruit.

The many unique char­ac­ter­is­tics which set it apart as a grow­ing re­gion are no bet­ter demon­strated than by the dy­namic and progressive South­ern Cross com­pany at Wood­lands – about 20 min­utes north of In­ver­cargill.

When you open the door at South­ern Cross’s pro­cess­ing plant at an un­mis­tak­able, sweet, parsnip aroma fills your nos­trils. Owner and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Matthew Mal­colm and op­er­a­tions man­ager Re­gan Queale are en­er­getic and an­i­mated as they talk about their in­creas­ingly well-known ‘So Sweet’ brand.

“We’ve ac­tu­ally had a very good spring, but do we re­ally want to tell peo­ple that? South­land springs are ac­tu­ally a very chal­leng­ing time of the year but by the odd freak of na­ture the past two or three weeks have been nice,” Matthew says.

It’s an­other cloud­less day in South­land, and the lo­cals have long-since ditched their rain­coats, in stark con­trast to their north­ern neigh­bours.

At South­ern Cross the nar­ra­tive is all about har­ness­ing South­land’s nat­u­ral ad­van­tages – long sum­mer sun­light hours, cold, frosts, lots of rain and great soils.

The com­pany’s mar­ket­ing videos meld images of sun-drenched pad­docks with waves crash­ing on to craggy South­land coast­lines.

The mes­sage is: ‘It’s a great place to grow veg­eta­bles, but you’ve got to know what you’re do­ing.’

The ‘cold’ as­pect is em­braced as “a big nat­u­ral cool-store in the ground”, stor­ing fresh­ness and sweet­ness.

Their story – what the So Sweet brand is all about – was en­cap­su­lated about four years ago when they brought in an Auck­land-based mar­ket­ing duo.

“It’s been re­ally, re­ally good, it’s given us a good plat­form,” Matthew says.

Fresh­ness of brand­ing is im­por­tant too, and each sea­son they re­think how their car­rots and parsnips are pre­sented in the mar­ket­place.

Matthew ad­mits the pre­vi­ous South­land spring was also a good one – but it had been good right across the coun­try, whereas this win­ter and spring had been “rot­ten” up north.

This, Re­gan con­tin­ues, had al­lowed them to get more prod­uct share in the bat­tle for space in the fam­ily roast­ing dish.

Ku­mara, yams and pump­kins are their com­pe­ti­tion – and parsnip has def­i­nitely been the more af­ford­able “cousin” this win­ter.

“We haven’t seen a lift in price, but sales are stronger,” Re­gan says.

Matthew has been grow­ing in South­land for 22 years. His fa­ther was

a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion ap­ple grower in Nel­son – where Matthew started out as a teenager grow­ing bunches of car­rots.

“I grew two rows, ten me­tres long. Weeded them all, thinned them, and stuck them in a road­side stall for cash.”

He was born-and-bred in Nel­son, and came to South­land with the

fam­ily when his dad de­cided to go sheep farm­ing.

“I’ve al­ways loved grow­ing veges, so we ploughed the pad­docks up, me and my brother (Owen) and started grow­ing veges.

“It’s just sort of evolved from there.”

They have a crew of about 30 staff. South­land is about 5% of their sales, the rest go­ing na­tion­wide. They’ve dou­bled their op­er­a­tion in the past decade.

South­ern Cross now grows about 50 acres of car­rots and about 200 acres of parsnips. They grow 80% parsnips and 20% car­rots – mak­ing up about 50% of the parsnips sold na­tion­wide. They want to push that fig­ure to­wards 75%.

Ex­port is a very small part of their busi­ness at the mo­ment – parsnips are sold into South East Asia to a largely ex-pat mar­ket.

Aus­tralia used to buy a lot of parsnips but has put a lot of bar­ri­ers in place.

Their ma­jor cus­tomers are the two big whole­salers – T&G Global and MG Mar­ket­ing, and the two big su­per­mar­ket chains, plus a cou­ple of smaller whole­salers.

South­ern Cross re­mains a small fam­ily busi­ness in Matthew’s eyes.

Their crops are mostly grown within a stone’s throw of their Wood­lands pro­cess­ing plant. His son Jesse is now the com­pany’s field man­ager.

They grow some out-of-sea­son car­rots in Nel­son. All of their car­rots are sold with tops on in bunches – the spring, fresh look which peo­ple are in­creas­ingly go­ing back to, Matthew says. >

Re­gan says they are con­stantly im­prov­ing what they sell by tri­al­ing new va­ri­eties of hy­brid car­rots – push­ing for the ul­ti­mate flavour.

“They’re al­ways go­ing to taste bet­ter com­ing out of South­land any­way.”

Yel­low, white and pur­ple car­rots have also been tri­alled, they say.

“Peo­ple are look­ing for a bit of colour. It’s a nov­elty mar­ket, but we were sur­prised with how many we sold,” Matthew says.

The Snow-White va­ri­ety has been the parsnip of choice for more than 20 years.

South­land is a good re­gion to grow in – but dis­tance to mar­ket is an is­sue, Matthew says.

“Every­one lives in the North Is­land.”

If there were sig­nif­i­cantly larger pop­u­la­tions nearby, most of South­land would be planted out in crops, he con­tin­ues.

South­ern Cross once grew a lot of broc­coli, cab­bage and cauliflower but it was too hard to make a re­turn on those crops.

He reck­ons they could grow a bet­ter qual­ity of cauliflower and broc­coli in South­land, but eco­nom­i­cally it doesn’t stack up.

“If you’re get­ting a dol­lar a head but it costs you a dol­lar to trans­port it to Auck­land, it’s never go­ing to work, is it?”

Parsnips are tricky to grow well, and the South­ern Cross team’s 20 plus years of ex­pe­ri­ence gives them a def­i­nite edge.

“Ev­ery new year brings a new chal­lenge,” Re­gan says.

Bag­ging tech­nol­ogy has come into the plant, but grad­ing is still a very vis­ual job. That’s not to say tech­nol­ogy isn’t on the radar – such as ma­chines which colour grade fruit and veg­eta­bles. GPS in trac­tors is stan­dard, help­ing avoid driver fa­tigue and in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency in op­er­a­tion.

Trace­abil­ity and prod­uct story is im­por­tant, but is more of a feel-good, as peo­ple weigh up price and qual­ity, with price of­ten the key fac­tor.

That’s not to say South­ern Cross doesn’t have that in­for­ma­tion at their fin­ger­tips. Matthew can tell you which pad­dock any parsnip or car­rot came out of – if the cus­tomer re­ally wants to know.

Gener­i­cally-la­belled prod­uct lines of­ten mean the con­sumer had no idea where pro­duce comes from. South­ern Cross strives to get its name into the mix so cus­tomers know it’s from South­land.

Some su­per­mar­kets are mov­ing away from in-house brands mean­ing the So Sweet name is be­ing seen more of­ten on pro­duce shelves around New Zealand, Matthew says.

When you pick up a Value bag of parsnips, or a Pam’s bag of parn­sips – they will be from South­ern Cross.

The ready to eat, con­ve­nience mar­ket has been slow to de­velop and they see them­selves as pri­mar­ily grow­ers, not pro­ces­sors. But the prod­uct range has grown with parsnip slices, readyto-roast pieces, mashed and crumbed cro­quettes on the mar­ket.

Crack­ing into the freezer sec­tion of the su­per­mar­ket is not the eas­i­est thing to do, but Matthew knows the im­por­tance of push­ing in that di­rec­tion.

“I see it as the way of the fu­ture, so we’re pretty de­ter­mined to make it hap­pen, be­cause peo­ple are go­ing away from tra­di­tional eat­ing.”

Re­gan points out that to grow the ex­port mar­ket they need to be in the frozen veg­etable game.

Peo­ple who get home from work at 5.30pm or 6pm – and Matthew cites him­self as an ex­am­ple – of­ten don’t want to spend time peel­ing and cut­ting up veg­eta­bles. A parsnip cro­quette which can go straight in the pan is ideal, Matthew says.

A su­per­mar­ket freezer man­ager in Auck­land tells him that two mil­lion Ki­wis a day fin­ish work and then think about what they are go­ing to have for din­ner.

Con­ve­nience is king.

Keep­ing ahead of changes to reg­u­la­tions around chem­i­cal use is an­other con­stant – and South­ern Cross is tip-toe­ing into or­gan­ics, but as with any­thing else, the re­turns need to be there to jus­tify the in­vest­ment.

Matthew does not fore­see mas­sive ex­pan­sion in hor­ti­cul­ture by oth­ers in South­land, but flora-cul­ture is one

area which has seen sig­nif­i­cant re­cent growth.

Matthew says he takes his hat off to one other in­dus­try player in the re­gion, Waikato-based Blue­berry Coun­try, which has es­tab­lished a blue­berry or­chard at Otau­tau in western South­land.

Pypers Pro­duce – based at Branx­holme, north-west of In­ver­cargill – is the other ma­jor com­mer­cial veg­etable grower in South­land.

Pypers was started by Nel­son and Rosanne Pyper with around 20 acres of pota­toes. Their rep­u­ta­tion grew and they achieved na­tional recog­ni­tion with awards – and even praise from Kiwi cook­ing leg­end Ali­son Holst, who once wrote: “Pypers of South­land pro­duce the best tast­ing pota­toes in New Zealand.”

The busi­ness is now run by Brent Lamb and Bren­dan Hamil­ton and grows crops on about 900 acres pro­duc­ing pota­toes and car­rots.

In 2015 they made head­lines tri­al­ing fresh potato ex­ports to Tai­wan.

A few kilo­me­tres back to­wards In­ver­cargill, An­gela Beazer and part­ner Craig Ma­cal­is­ter have swopped city life for a semi-ru­ral life­style run­ning Drys­dale Hy­dro­pon­ics, at My­ross Bush.

The busi­ness was es­tab­lished about 15 years ago by the Flynn fam­ily.

So what prompted a lawyer spe­cial­is­ing in civil avi­a­tion and a tax ac­coun­tant to get into the hy­dro­pon­ics busi­ness? The cou­ple made a life­style move from Welling­ton about five years ago, and af­ter a friendly real es­tate agent over­heard them dis­cussing prop­erty at a club one night said: “Have I got the prop­erty for you”.

On the way out to view a prop­erty at My­ross Bush the agent asked: “So what do you know about grow­ing let­tuce?”. And the rest is his­tory.

“It’s been a bit of a learn­ing curve for us,” An­gela ad­mits.

“I was and still am im­pressed with hy­dro­pon­ics, be­cause it’s sus­tain­able, and you’re not us­ing much space, and you’re con­tin­u­ally grow­ing. You’re get­ting a lot out of a small space.”

They grow let­tuce out in four to five weeks in sum­mer and about eight to nine weeks in win­ter. The sum­mer so far was look­ing pretty good, af­ter a poor sum­mer last year.

Run­ning a hy­dro­pon­ics unit in South­land re­quires of the use of heat pumps to heat the wa­ter and high pres­sure sodium light­ing to give the growth a help­ing hand for sev­eral months of the year.

“Us­ing these more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly sources means we only need to run our boiler for about two to three months a year dur­ing the peak win­ter sea­son, and we only tend to run it when the heat pumps can’t cope with the frosts and low tem­per­a­tures.”

They pro­duce by the kilo and by the sleeve – and An­gela says Drys­dale turns out sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand let­tuce a year. In sum­mer it’s a five to six day week op­er­a­tion, but in win­ter they drop down to two to three days a week. They have four per­ma­nent staff and em­ploy ca­sual staff dur­ing sum­mer.

They sell mainly lo­cally to su­per­mar­kets in In­ver­cargill and around South­land, and the odd let­tuce here and there in Christchurch.

They’ve switched from mainly sup­ply­ing whole­salers, as An­gela and Craig felt they could have bet­ter con­trol over pric­ing and cus­tomer re­la­tion­ships. They still sup­ply about 10% of what they pro­duce through whole­sale chan­nels.

“It is quite tough grow­ing hy­dro­pon­i­cally in South­land. It’s a tough mar­ket. It’s very com­pet­i­tive.

“If I could go back to high school, I would have paid more at­ten­tion in sci­ence. It’s all about un­der­stand­ing your nu­tri­ents, chem­i­cals and wa­ter qual­ity.”

Their wa­ter sup­ply comes through rain­wa­ter off the tun­nel house roof, and is stored in nearby tanks. Keep­ing ev­ery­thing clean is es­sen­tial.

Green and red frill let­tuce are sold in a va­ri­ety of ways – as bagged leaves and in sleeves as sin­gles or dou­bles. For restau­rants and cafes, they sup­ply a mix of leaves. Cos let­tuce are also very pop­u­lar.

“Peo­ple are a lot more used to hav­ing their coloured let­tuce now.”

An­gela and Craig started of­fer­ing 150gm and 330gm bags of let­tuce >

to su­per­mar­kets and su­perettes for peo­ple want­ing the con­ve­nience of smaller pro­cessed let­tuce, and who like to buy it as fresh as pos­si­ble.

“They started re­ally slow, but they’re re­ally pop­u­lar now.”

Peo­ple are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware of where their food comes from, and like to buy lo­cal when they can, An­gela says.

They order their seedlings through Zealan­dia in Christchurch.

An­gela loves be­ing able to be out in the sun, or un­der the roof dur­ing sum­mer.

“Days like this when you’re work­ing out­side and it’s lovely, it does beat work­ing in an of­fice when you can come out here.”

They are the only com­mer­cial hy­dro­ponic let­tuce grow­ing op­er­a­tion left in South­land, as other grow­ers have left the mar­ket in re­cent years, she says.

Their main com­pe­ti­tion is from Mos­giel, Dunedin and to a lesser ex­tent Christchurch.

Drys­dale has room to ex­pand, but An­gela and Craig are happy with the busi­ness at the level it is at. The de­mand is def­i­nitely there, with po­ten­tial for spinach and mesclun to be pro­duced and sold on a larger scale.

As if run­ning one busi­ness wasn’t enough, An­gela also finds time to run a civil avi­a­tion law prac­tice. She was a Civil Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity lawyer in Welling­ton prior to mov­ing south. Craig is Tax Prin­ci­pal at the In­ver­cargill Crowe Hor­wath branch, and is Drys­dale’s res­i­dent handyman.

An­gela en­joys the in­dus­try – they do feel a bit iso­lated at times but have a grower in Blen­heim they get on well

with and a cou­ple of in­dus­try sources in Christchurch who they bounce ideas and in­for­ma­tion around with – around the likes of pric­ing.

Be­ing a mem­ber of Hor­ti­cul­ture NZ was also in­valu­able for them as a link to the in­dus­try.

“It was good to see them (visit re­cently) and we get a lot of good in­for­ma­tion from the Grower Mag­a­zine.”

Ven­ture South­land Group Man­ager Strate­gic Projects Steve Canny says South­land has sig­nif­i­cant po­ten­tial for hor­ti­cul­ture to ex­pand and for new crops.

Through the Topocli­mate and Crops for South­land projects, vast amounts of soil and crop data are avail­able – which is now be­ing added to with ae­rial mag­netic sur­veys.

“What this does for farm­ers is it as­sists them to re­ally op­ti­mize their grow­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Crops for South­land has proac­tively re­searched new crop op­por­tu­ni­ties in South­land.

Canny says the Rabobank Fu­ture of Farm­ing Re­port iden­ti­fies that foods from veg­etable pro­teins are among most ef­fi­cient food pro­duc­tion sys­tems, and in fu­ture there will be a premium paid for food pro­duced on non-ir­ri­gated land in a good en­vi­ron­ment.

“In South­land, we have a dy­namic range of soils for veg­etable pro­duc­tion and flora-cul­ture, but also heav­ier soils that don’t re­quire ir­ri­ga­tion.

“We do have a nat­u­ral ad­van­tage in that re­gard.”

While Cli­mate Change was af­fect­ing all of New Zealand, South­land was not suf­fer­ing the ex­tremes be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced in some re­gions.

Those who had com­mit­ted to hor­ti­cul­ture in South­land had pro­gres­sively grown, built on very suc­cess­ful busi­ness mod­els.

South­land and New Zealand as a whole had ar­guably un­der­played their “food story” to some de­gree, but this is chang­ing, he says.

“The story of where you are pro­duc­ing and the val­ues of the com­pa­nies pro­duc­ing are im­por­tant.”

“The other ad­van­tage we have as a re­gion is we’ve in­vested heav­ily in in­for­ma­tion about soils and our cli­mate.”

Be­ing GMO-free as a coun­try is a huge ad­van­tage to NZ, he says.

Canny says new crops – such as flavour crops and crops that can be used in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals – could also play a part in the re­gion.

How­ever, dis­tance to mar­ket and trans­port costs re­main a bar­rier.

To be com­pet­i­tive in ex­port mar­kets grow­ers need to ei­ther sell vast amounts or add value to what they are ex­port­ing, Canny says.

“You need a sweet spot of pro­duc­tion.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.