Words Denise Irvine
Images Alex Spodyneiko
Nothing prepares you for Earth Stewards Urban Farm in suburban Rototuna. You drive past pleasant houses and trim gardens and then there is Earth Stewards, a small but perfectly formed oasis of fresh produce – courgettes, kale, lettuce, butternuts, cavolo nero and the like – in an unexpected place.
This Hamilton property offers an organic “farm to table” array of vegetables from 1.3ha of lovingly cared for land. Earth Stewards is a regular at Waikato Farmer’s Markets, held on Saturdays in Cambridge, at Victoria Square, and Sundays at Claudelands Events Centre; it is among many market stallholders practising authentic, sustainable methods of production, treading as lightly as possible on the planet.
Waikato Farmer’s Markets administrator Kathryn Hunter says most stallholders are spray-free or organic, and such practices are scrutinised before newcomers are taken on board. “Our customers love to know where their food comes from and how it is grown.”
So, today, a snapshot of four stallholders and their growing styles.
Earth Stewards Urban Farm, Rototuna, was developed three years ago by Warwick and Clare Hutchinson, on the property where they earlier established the Waikato Waldorf School and later added Kowhai Childcare.
The urban farm grew out of the Hutchinsons’ goal of making more food available for their community. They plant and eat with the seasons, there is a mix of outdoor vegetable beds and tunnel houses, and the farm has its own bore for irrigation. As well as selling at the farmer’s markets, there is online ordering, annual subscription boxes, and a farm shop that opens on Tuesday afternoons.
Earth Stewards is a certified organic operation under the auspices of Organic Farming NZ (OFNZ), an organisation founded 20 years ago for small organic farms supplying the domestic market. It operates on a peer review system among communities of growers; Warwick says it as an excellent system of like-minded growers supporting each other, sharing information and building good relationships.
“We always intended to be organic (at Earth Stewards), it is the way of the future. We are practising regenerative agriculture, and we look after our land as guardians, to hand on to future generations.”
Regenerative agriculture embraces methods that build nutrient-rich soils and resilient natural systems, with healthy soil being the key to healthy plants. In this little corner of Rototuna, they’re blessed with an excellent growing medium of a light, loamy soil. It is treated with utmost respect by Earth Stewards’ head gardener Coral Remiro and her team of three, Georgia Hamilton, Lena Treml and Alex Dunn.
Weeds are removed by hand (no chemicals or pesticides are used). Earth Stewards practises poly-cropping, integrating and inter-planting different vegetables, high and low species, spreading and compact, to cover as much of the ground as possible and thus prevent weed growth. The poly-cropping premise (apart from minimising weeds) is that the wider variety of plants in the same area encourages a wider variety of beneficial microorganisms in the soil and greater opportunities for natural nutrition.
Says Coral: “We have cycles of planting, harvesting, removing spent plants, composting, planting cover crops, and starting again. We don’t use fertilisers to feed our soil, we rely on compost (made on site), plus natural microbiotic communities, and kelp.
“We also have an important practice of no tilling, no unnecessary disturbance of the soil. Seedlings are planted with minimum disturbance to ensure healthy soil and plants.”
The results being fresh, seasonal vegetables for Earth Stewards’ community, market customers and more, just as founders Warwick and Clare Hutchinson envisaged.
Tender Fresh Produce is another market stalwart, the “growing” business of Teresa and Philip Linehan, on their 3.2ha property at Te Kawa, south of Te Awamutu. The Linehans started as seasonal stallholders, selling sweetcorn each summer, and then potatoes. About two years ago, Teresa began planting a wider variety of vegetables and flowers for the markets and nowadays she is a year-rounder with extras such as lettuce, butternuts, broccoli, cabbage, chillis, and bouquets of fresh flowers.
She has about .4ha planted in different vegetables and flowers, the same amount of land for potatoes, and the rest is dedicated to their core business of sweetcorn.
Teresa, who is the new chair of Waikato Farmer’s Markets, looks after the diversified veggie range herself and is a self-described “neglectful gardener”. In a good way! “If my vegetables thrive on neglect, I let them be. I don’t have time to fuss over them. Brassicas are so good for this (the no-fuss method), they look after themselves. I grow great broccoli.”
She uses natural products to control insect pests, “no bad chemicals”, plants marigolds as beneficial companions for brassicas, and sometimes is content to just leave the insects be. They look after their excellent Waikato soil at Tender Fresh and practise rotational cropping, a cycle whereby a paddock is rested for a season, grazed by their cattle, and then prepared again for cultivation.
Teresa says the cattle are also handy for eating leftover vegetables.”They love broccoli and corn.”
Rivendell Gardens lies conveniently between Cambridge and Hamilton, supplying both markets with fresh vegetables and fragrant feijoas (in season). Rivendell was founded in the mid-1980s by Dutch immigrants Johan and Miriam van der Gaag and nowadays it is run by their daughter Marlies Clemens and her husband Caleb Clemens.
The 2ha property has 500 feijoa trees and 1000 sqm of greenhouses. The greenhouse vegetables are grown in a semi-hydroponic system that aims for healthy crops and an environmentally friendly system that is free of chemical sprays.
Marlies says plants are grown in pots, two to a pot, in a medium of ground pumice. There are 3,000 pots, 6,000 plants, all carefully watered and monitored. Excess water (that drips through the pots) is collected, tested for salinity, and recycled in the irrigation system. “It is a closed system. Nothing gets into the water table; we don’t want to change our environment.”
Small amounts of natural nutrients are added to the water when necessary, according to Rivendell’s own recipe, and this is kept as simple as possible.
The greenhouses produce a wide range of vegetables, including large tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, courgettes, capsicums, scallopini, Hungarian heritage beans, kohlrabi, and hot peppers for Caleb’s much-loved hot sauces.
Marlies says their vegetables have big flavours; tomatoes are left to ripen on the vine and are picked at their optimum the day before the markets. “They are ripe and perfect.”
Nothing is wasted at Rivendell. For example, when the greenhouse pots need replacing after a few years, the pumice is put to good use on the property. Recently some of it has taken on a new life as a path.
Suncakes Gardens, at Whatawhata, is the well nurtured property of David Ruan and his family. Each weekend the pickings from their 4ha plantings feed shoppers at the Cambridge and Hamilton markets, who load up with bok choy, carrots, courgettes, beans, spinach, kale, and other seasonal produce.
David is committed to organic gardening at Suncakes and is working towards certification with the internationally recognised BioGro organisation, New Zealand’s largest and best-known certifier of organic produce and products.
He is following BioGro’s strict requirements around all aspects of his work, including seeds, fertilisers and other materials, and he hopes that Suncakes will be fully certified by May next year.
“The BioGro standards ensure fresh, healthy produce,” he says. “It is good for people, it is sustainable, and environmentally friendly.”
David came to New Zealand in 2003 from South China. He has an agricultural science degree, and he previously grew vegetables in South Auckland before finding the perfect spot for Suncakes at Whatawhata in 2015. “The land was very flat, it had very good soil, and a temperate climate.”
His vegetables are grown with the seasons, in a year-round cycle, and are planted and picked by hand. His key helpers are his wife and children.
David loves being part of Waikato Farmer’s Market: “We have good relationships with our lovely customers, and good complementary relationships with other stallholders.”