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Organics in the Bay

The New Zealand organic sector, now worth $600 million, is booming.

Rosheen FitzGerald01 February 2019

BB45

Organics Aotearoa New Zealand’s biennial market report to Parliament earlier this year showed a booming industry, growing twice as fast as conventional farming. 

Organics still only constitute 2.2% of our collective grocery bill, but since the most frequently purchased organic goods are fresh produce, this figure is almost certainly masked by the trade in market and roadside stalls, and from specialty grocers. 

Although 80% of us, at least occasionally, make an organic purchase, only 7% have a complete understanding of what ‘organic’ really means.

A good starting answer is Scott Lawson’s explanation on his True Earth website: 

Aunty Hanui Lawrence and Marion Thomson at Aunty’s Garden. Photo: Florence Charvin

“Growing organically is a science, which involves maintaining a balance in an environmentally sustainable and non-polluting system. It is labour intensive and involves the use of compost, careful tillage and rotation, and encouraging natural predators” and “without the routine use of synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides and growth regulators.” 

With organics, no part of the system exists in isolation – from soil micronutrients to ethical working practices. There are no quick fixes. Instead, dedicated farmers, makers and distributors plunge their hearts and minds, sweat and toil, money and skill, into producing traceable, sustainable, chemical-free food. Their labour of love is in service of an ideal that filters from the very earth beneath their feet, through plants, animals, people and community. 

Marion Thomson has been up to her elbows in organic dirt for decades. She’s a community educator, teaching free, marae-based horticulture courses through EIT. And as Organic Farm New Zealand’s certification manager, she’s responsible for auditing and accrediting organic certification for the domestic market from Gisborne to Dannevirke. 

“Organics are a validation of safe, healthy, ethically produced food,” she explains. “It’s a verification that covers land and growing practices, social and ethical practices, and environmental practices. It’s a holistic picture of growing.”

There’s a number of different regulatory bodies involved: Asure Quality, the government verification body; BioGro, NZ’s preeminent and largest certifier; OFNZ, BioGro’s regional, domestic wing; Demeter, the anthroposophical assurance; and Hua Parakore, certification based on kaupapa Māori under Te Waka Kai Ora.

Currently, there is no regulation on use of the word ‘organic’. Some grow under organic principles but don’t have the time, money or inclination to jump through hoops for certification. They rely on local familiarity and trust regarding their practice and produce. Whether consumers take their word depends on the relationship they have with the grower or distributer.

From Marion’s seat on the National Council of the Soil and Health Association, she’s campaigning to restrict use of the highly marketable ‘Organic’ label to products that adhere to an independently verified production standard. Past and neighbouring land use, soil quality, crop types and inputs used, and resource management are all parts of the picture. Strictly regulated, plant and sea based inputs are permitted in organics, but no chemical sprays or pharmaceuticals can be used on land or animals.

In December, agriculture minister Damien O’Connor announced a national standard for organic production would be progressed this year as a government bill, commenting: “A national standard gives consumers confidence in organic claims and businesses certainty to invest and innovate in the growing sector. It’ll also help grow our organic export trade as it brings us in line with international approaches to regulation.”

Down to earth

A fundamental principle of organics is building healthy soil. BioRich diverts organic waste from industry, converting into a valuable resource what once caused huge environmental headaches and methane emissions in landfill. 

Operations manager Nigel Halpin has seen demand for their certified organic compost burgeon, turning over around 40,000m3 annually. He credits its popularity to tangible benefits for earth and produce. “Using compost, you improve your land’s ability to hold water and nutrients, which is good from a holistic point of view. You’ll get less leeching and better use of your land.”

Understanding the land also informs what True Earth’s Lawson chooses to grow at his Ngatarawa farm. “Our main focus is to build resilience into our soils and our wider system. We look at the right types and varieties of crops, in the right location, at the right time of year.” 

Scott turned away from conventional farming in the 1990s, motivated by sustainability concerns. “Everything was like an insurance policy … You needed all these structures and support mechanisms, which were often reactive rather than proactive.” 

Scott urges caution over the largely unseen issue of food security. While horticulture, arable and livestock farming are secure, closed systems, globalisation has disenfranchised large scale, commercial vegetable seed production. Although heritage organic seeds are produced at small scale and preserved locally, they are unavailable at the scale required for bigger, competitive enterprise. So, oddly, seed produced in New Zealand is sent to Europe for processing, then bought back by NZ farmers. 

“We don’t own those seeds. We don’t have any control over it,” Scott explains. Increasingly, major corporates hold the seed patents, control global production and could potentially hold NZ to ransom over its GE Free status. “We have very few independent seed companies left in the world. They’re all connected to the chemical companies.”

Second nature

Healthy land creates healthy crops to feed healthy animals. For livestock farmer Andy Tait-Jamieson, organics is instinctive, a return to tradition. “I started farming the way I had assimilated growing up on a farm. I quickly discovered that was what we now call ‘organic’.” 

To him, routine use of antibiotics in conventional livestock farming indicates a failure of process. “It means there’s a stress on that system, things are out of balance.” 

Andy rejected pressure to overstock his land and then rely on pharmaceutical intervention to squeeze a diminishing profit margin. Although his meats are now sold at a premium, he argues this is the true price of healthy, ethically-produced food. 

“I don’t even attempt to justify the cost. It should be the other way around … You can buy a loaf of white bread for a dollar. There’s a plastic bag there and thirty pieces of white bread. Something’s wrong. Don’t ask why organic is so dear, ask why other food is so cheap.”

Growing strong

The Bostock name is synonymous with organics in Hawke’s Bay. They grow most of New Zealand’s organic apples, for both domestic and export markets, as well as other premium produce. 

As conventional orchardists living on-site in the 1990s, the Bostocks became concerned by carcinogenic effects of organophosphates, which were sprayed liberally in those days. To safeguard the health of their own family, including young sons Ben and George, they converted their orchard to organic. This changed the course of New Zealand’s apple industry and influenced Ben and George into careers rooted in organics … hence Bostock Brothers Organic Free-Range Chicken.

Although their chickens account for just 0.3% of the national market, they provide respite from an industry that is largely unregulated and dominated by just four large corporations. “We’re basically a roadside stall compared to the rest of the industry,” says George.

Their point of difference lies in their organic status. Smaller flock sizes avoid the need to routinely feed the antibiotics used routinely elsewhere. Chefs credit birds grown slower without hormones for producing superior tasting meat, as well as allaying ethical concerns.

“Animal welfare is absolutely critical to our business,” George explains. “That organic certificate is the strictest standard for welfare in New Zealand.”

Their philosophy of care permeates through both the apple and the chicken businesses to their workers, for whom John Bostock founded Bostock’s Organic Kitchen four years ago. Concerned that staff were forced to travel to source unhealthy lunches, he engaged a chef to produce wholesome, seasonal, organic-where-possible fare. It has been a success, providing nutritional education that spreads out through the workers’ families into the community. “It’s much healthier and it’s subsidised for staff, but it’s open to the public as well,” George says. “Everyone’s welcome.”

Local market

As well as a wealth of organic producers, Hawke’s Bay needs distribution networks to supply demand. Te Awanga local, Krystie Miller, is bringing her organic passion to the people. 

She’s pulling together a new mid-week organic market by the beach. She aims to make a space for locals and organic enthusiasts to gather, eat good food, listen to local musicians and stock up on produce. Through her lifestyle and nutrition business, she’s observed the transformative effects of wholesome foods. “I know how important it is to eat good, natural foods and be prepared, because it’s too easy to run out of food and go get take away!”

Krystie has carefully researched her stallholders to ensure they meet a high – though not necessarily organic – standard. “As long as they have respect for the animal or food, they nurture the soil, look after and respect everything in the process, they don’t spray with chemicals, then I’m happy with that.”

More than just a place to shop, Krystie’s vision is to create a food hub, where people come for social interaction, meet growers and makers, get educated through talks and demonstrations. She hopes by inspiring a community invested in health, the desire for organics and wholesome food will grow.

Grassroots

Kaye and Alan Keats have been meeting the demand for organics in the Bay since 1984. What started as an organic cooperative aligned to the Steiner School has evolved into Hastings’ cornerstone Cornucopia. Over those years they have observed a shift in their customers. “It was very much alternative people back then, but now it’s quite mainstream,” Kaye observes. “People have become aware, started looking at labels, wondering where their food comes from.”

Their business model is about relationships … with growers and consumers. They’re motivated to ensure stock is sustainable to produce and purchase. Kaye says, “We think about food miles and food security. By buying local you’re supporting the environment, and you’re supporting the local economy.” Alan adds, “If you don’t support the growers then you lose the supply.” 

Consumers come to them for assurance and education. “We have a trust relationship with our customers. We’ve been doing this a long time. We have really strong ethics, and are really concerned the things we sell are okay.” It’s a mantra backed by the shop’s BioGro organic certification, allowing them to sell uncertified products, as long as they’re satisfied of progeny and products are labelled correctly. 

Kaye, a medical herbalist and nutritionist, promotes an understanding of how the substances people put into their bodies have health outcomes. Awareness of eating fresh, seasonal, local produce connects people back with where their food comes from, she says. “If you eat ‘dead food’ it doesn’t enliven your mind and your soul…food that’s really alive and vibrant will help you feel vibrant.”

Nourishing body and soul

The process of creating living food from the ground up has been paramount in Gretta Carney’s long journey with organics. In her work establishing the Hua Parakore certification standard, she acknowledges the metaphysical connections to the land organics can offer. It’s a holistic system: kaupapa (values) inform tikanga (practices) to produce ngā hua (outcomes). 

In her research, Gretta’s found qualitative differences between regular organic farmers and those who used a biodynamic or Hua Parakore framework. Both involve a spiritual component. “They develop this real faith in forces outside them that make their system work and they generate the energy.”

Hua Parakore informs how Gretta runs her café and market stall, Hapī Ora. Both she and her co-founder are health practitioners who uphold a principle of food as medicine. She promotes a change of thinking towards taking control of our own wellness. 

“The difference between someone who goes to a doctor and wants a band-aid versus a holistic healing model is that you are responsible for your own health. You need to support and maintain your own health. Someone else can’t do it for you.” 

Gretta was an early proponent of a vision to see New Zealand fully organic by 2020, and although she knows this is now unobtainable, she still has high hopes for Hawke’s Bay. Like many others working every day in the small but dedicated organics world, she sees this way of thinking as a big opportunity for the Bay, socially and economically.

“As a region we get to decide the kind of economy we want to build,” she suggests. “Hawke’s Bay is a hotbed of shift when it comes to organics. There’s a real potential for us to be able to adopt something for the country and for that to resonate out.” 

Who’s Who in Organic Hawke’s Bay 

GROWERS

Bostock New Zealand: John Bostock is the largest producer of organic apples in the country. Plus a host of other produce. Coming soon, Bostock Organic Wine.

Lawson’s True Earth: Scott and Vicki have been growing organic vegetables and berry fruit since the 1990s.

Hohepa: Biodynamic vegetables, meat and dairy with a social conscience. Also offer a line in natural crafts and candles.

The Chef’s Garden @Epicurean: Clyde Potter grows and distributes greens to home and commercial chefs throughout the region.

Te Koha: Biodynamic horticulture specialising in heritage, disease resistant fruit. Check out Clare and Erin’s juice and apple cider vinegar.

JJ’s Organics: Uncertified organic produce grown at their property on Riverbend Road.

Bremdale Coastal Gardens: Supplying vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs and honey from Nuhaka.

BUTCHERS

The Organic Farm: Wide range of meat products and small goods at Hastings shop and the Farmers’ Market.

Bostocks Free Range Organic Chickens: Providing poultry for restaurants, supermarkets, butchers and markets around the country.

Mangarara Family Farm: Organic beef, lamb and pork in Elsthorpe.

DAIRY & EGGS

Lindsay Farm: Raw organic milk from a family-run farm in Waipukurau.

Sentry Hill Organics: cow and sheep milk dairy products from Central Hawke’s Bay. They also produce Pasture Poultry Free Range Organic Eggs.

Humming Hill Farm: Supplying homes, supermarkets and cafés from their free-roaming 400 strong flock in Havelock North.

Beady Eye: produced on Heather Smith Radley and Nick Radley’s biodynamic farm at Tauroa Station in the Tukituki Valley. As well as eggs they have a diverse range of fruit, crops and animals. They are invested in biodiversity and sustainability education.

SELLERS

Cornucopia Organics: One-stop organic shop on Heretaunga Street.

Chantal Organics: Napier-based organic supermarket and wholesalers since 1983. Founder Peter Alexander has recently sold to national organic chain, Huckleberry.

Norton Road Organics: Peter Alexander’s farm shop, stocking home-grown fresh produce, juices and dry goods.

Te Awanga Organic Market: Mid-week market for fresh produce by the beach.

EATERIES

Bostock Organic Kitchen: Fresh, wholesome, reasonably priced lunches.

Hapī Kai Co-Op: Ready-to-eat meals and store cupboard staples designed for health.

Taste, Cornucopia: Family-friendly café cuisine.

The Wholefood Kitchen @ Chantals: Plant-based meals and treats.

GARDENERS

Kahikatea Farm: Organic plants, flowers and vegetables grown on permaculture principles. They also have a strong educational component.

Links Organics: Seasonal organic plants and produce sold at the Napier and Hastings Farmers’ Markets.

Setha’s Seeds: Setha Davenport and Roddy Branagan run courses as well as growing and selling heritage seeds and garlic from Tūtira. Uncertified but run on organic principles.

Koanga Institute: In Wairoa, educates on organic principles and holds New Zealand’s largest organic heritage food and seeds collection, sold nationwide. 

BioRich: In Awatoto, the place for certified organic compost to build your soil.

Pacific Wave Organics: Providing alternatives to chemical sprays and inputs from plant and sea.

BREAD

Ya Bon: Authentic French bread and pastries made with organic flour.

Oh My Goodness: Gluten-free baking made from organic buckwheat milled on site.

WINE

Stonecroft Organic Wine: Small, family-run operation over two vineyards. 

William Murdoch: Natural winemaking at Gimblett Gravels.

Supernatural Wine Co.: Boutique biodynamic vineyard at Millar Road.

Villa Maria Organic: Vidal’s Joseph Soler vineyard managed by Jonathan Hamlet.

HEALTH, BEAUTY & BABY

Weleda – Biodynamic skin and health care products grown in Havelock North and distributed internationally.

Millstream Gardens – Home-grown cosmetics and health products.

Pureborn Organics – Organic cotton babywear based in Taradale. 

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Rosheen FitzGerald01 February 2019

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