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Fresh start with leafy greens

Fresh start with leafy greens

Fresh start with leafy greens

Tony and Lisa Dale-Low are relatively new to the horticulture sector but are already showing that the desire to learn and the ability to respond to market demand offers increasing opportunities for their fresh, hydroponically-grown produce.

The couple purchased Waikawa Fresh near the Horowhenua area of Manakau in 2018 in a conscious decision to create a new way of life for their young family. Tony and Lisa, from Waikanae and Marton respectively, both had corporate jobs in Wellington while raising their three children in suburbia.

Tony picks up the story: “We were looking for something different so bought a house bus and spent nearly two years travelling around New Zealand. We looked around, wondering what we could do. Did we want to go back to suburbia? Then we fell in love with rural living and wanted a new project. Horticulture seemed a good option to be productive on a smaller plot. Then we found a TradeMe ad for this property and hydroponic business.”

Originally a dairy farm, a tomato growing operation was established on the property several decades ago. This was amended to hydroponic lettuce growing in the late ‘80s with other owners who also added outdoor vegetable crops. Plastic greenhouses were erected in the ‘90s for the current hydroponic setup which utilises a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system.

Tony says they knew nothing about growing lettuces hydroponically. “We rolled up our sleeves and started to learn. One of the previous owners stayed on as an employee for about nine months, sharing her knowledge. Another employee has been here about 15 years, so we had lots of experience to draw on. We look back on those first few days three years ago and wonder how we managed to get product out the door without killing everything, but we did! We’ve been sponges to soak up knowledge, plus there are people like Patsy and Robbie at Fruitfed Supplies in Levin with support and advice. It’s been a big help having people like them available.”

With about 2,500 square metres undercover plus more growing areas under netting, they grow lettuces, rocket, watercress and a range of other herbs year-round and sell through wholesalers or to others who put together local vege boxes. Demand is often higher in winter, especially when weather events prevent outdoor growers getting into paddocks to harvest or sow.

“We get pretty tight for product availability in winter,” Tony says. “We increase our stock levels in winter to allow for slower growth rates and higher demand. But demand can be lumpy and it’s not easy to predict. It’s a continuous production cycle for us and once product is ready, there isn’t a big window for harvest. Although our volumes are quite small compared to outdoor growers, we’re planting multiple times a week and harvest every day to keep everything at best possible quality.”

Tony and Lisa are expanding the range and volume of herbs grown hydroponically, which go to local restaurants and hospitality businesses, as well as to the vege box providers. “We can be flexible with quite small runs of a variety of herbs such as watercress, rocket, dill and basil for continuous rolling supply according to season.”

Creating the life they wanted for their family is a big part of Tony and Lisa’s ethos which is to be mindful of the land and people. Growing hydroponically uses less land, water and energy than outdoor growing and the couple aims for minimal spraying of organic products to protect crops from pests.

They love the climate in Manakau. “It has a fantastic climate compared to Wellington and feels a lot like Nelson and Motueka for growing conditions but doesn’t really have the same recognition as a growing area. We are both from this wider Kapiti and Manawatu are but had never spent time in Manakau. After travelling around New Zealand, we think we’ve found the perfect place.”

Aphids are always around, and populations can increase when plants are stressed with heat or extreme cold. “Making sure aphids don’t get hold is the key,” Tony says. “We spray with organic neem oil when needed. Caterpillars can also be an issue from time to time, with their droppings causing black streaks and dots which are not nice on your fresh lettuce! We spray regularly with a Bt product which is very effective and has virtually no pre-harvest interval. The backbone of a quality product is making sure we have good quality seedlings to start with, maintaining good plant and system hygiene and not leaving plants too long before harvesting or removing. You want good practices to start with to minimise opportunities for pests or disease.”

A recent review of the hydroponic nutrient mix, which uses Yara soluble fertilisers, has seen a visible improvement of plant quality.

"We’ll probably review at least every year now to keep an eye on the mix."

Tony appreciates the support of Fruitfed Supplies personnel, Patsy Matthews, who is the new Technical Horticultural Representative, and Robbie Jennings in the Levin store.

“Patsy’s great. We had a good walk round together recently and she’s really interested in what we’re doing. She and Robbie are there to help where they can, which is great.”