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.
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.”