Organics and biodynamics on the rise

By Rebecca Reider

Photo: Warren BucklandCalendula flowers at Weleda's biodynamic gardens in Hawkes Bay.
Photo: Warren BucklandCalendula flowers at Weleda's biodynamic gardens in Hawkes Bay.

Primary industry: The organic food and agriculture industry has grown 25% over the past three years, and New Zealand is well placed to take advantage.

Once upon a time, you didn't need to look for a "certified organic" logo if you wanted natural produce free of toxic sprays; food simply was organic. Industrial agriculture ended that. But now, the pendulum is swinging back: more pioneers, from supermarket managers to herb gardeners, are using science and soul to rediscover the roots of good eating.

This is not some fad. In New Zealand, the organic food and agriculture business has quietly grown 25% in the last three years, mirroring global growth, according to a recent report from Organics Aotearoa New Zealand. That's an impressive feat in tough economic times. The reasons for success often lie not in some graph of economic progress, however, but in the stories of passionate, innovative individuals committed to their land and health. And though most of these people didn't get into it just to make a dollar, many are now finding that being organic is great for business as well.

The produce section
Adrian Barkla, the owner of New World Remuera, is blunt about his motivations for stocking one of the country's most bountiful supermarket selections of fresh organic produce. "I just want to eat it myself!" He says. "So I got the range in to eat for me."

He must be hungry. A year ago, the supermarket was turning over $1000 a week in fresh organic produce. Now that figure is $30,000 a week. In an unusual twist, where possible the store sells organic produce at the same price as conventional produce, in order to convince consumers to try the organic one. "We price organic apples the same as ordinary apples, organic silverbeet the same as ordinary silverbeet," Adrian says.

In a world where supermarkets are not always friendly to family farmers, Remuera New World's staff have built strong personal relationships with organic growers. By taking such a huge supply (sometimes taking a grower's whole crop) and by following through on their deals, the store secures good prices, as the organic growers are happy to have a reliable market.

Around 20 certified organic growers supply the store. The current organic winter vege selection ranges from gourmet treats like celeriac and fresh fennel, to standards like parsnips, spinach and silverbeet. Produce comes through distributors Purefresh Organic, or straight from the farmers themselves. With a bit of networking, there's no shortage of food. "When we started to sell organic produce, I had to find growers, but now growers find us to push their produce," says produce manager Abhi Patel.

Organic berryfruit, pumpkins, onions and carrots come from True Earth Organics in Hawkes Bay, a family farm which has become one of New Zealand's largest organic fresh food operations. Persimmons come from Jackie and Alan Gray, who have been nurturing their organic persimmon orchard in sunny Gisborne for 25 years.

Organic growers tend to be proud of what they grow. The store's fruit growers say they've noticed their fruit has become tastier since they've used organic practices. Carl Knapp's pear orchard in Hawkes Bay has been organic for 13 years. As a result of using only natural fertilisers, he says, "I've noticed the sugar levels are higher because the tree has to work a bit harder. That translates into fruit that's firmer and naturally sweet." Likewise, plum grower Ian Kiddle notices his plums are slightly smaller but have more flavour than conventional plums.

But why is this supermarket pushing organic so hard? The more people who eat organic, the more will grow it - an upward spiral for everyone, Adrian Barkla says. "I can influence the market, so that's what I'm trying to do," he says. "I just want New Zealand to be organic and believe in themselves that they can do it."

In our visual society, so much is sold on its physical appearance. The problem, as Barkla points out, is that food has come to be sold that way too. Chemical fertilisers make conventional produce pump up in size. But the fast growth can mean the produce simply bulks up on water content, without actually gaining many nutrients - and unbalanced plants become more vulnerable to pests, which means more pesticides have to be used. Barkla likens much conventional produce to a person who's had cosmetic surgery.

"Conventional fruit and vegetables have toxic pesticide sprays that are poisonous to us, increasing the risk to humans of cancer and other illnesses," he says. "I define quality by the inside, the nutrients, the taste. Organic tastes better and it's better for your body. Your body will thank you."

Organic on the vine
"Organic" and "wine" might sound an unusual combination, since wine isn't exactly considered a health food. But the organic wine industry has taken off across New Zealand in recent years, and has become the country's fastest-growing organic industry. The amount of organic vineyard land nationwide has quadrupled since 2008.

Villa Maria Estate is known as one of New Zealand's biggest wine brands - but less well known is how deeply the company has committed to organic growing. The company's first organic vineyard, in Hawkes Bay, earned full BioGro organic certification in 2007. By 2012, approximately 30% of Villa's vineyards across the country were under certified organic management. The winery's entry into organics was not a marketing ploy. Owner Sir George Fistonich prompted the company to start looking at organic growing as early as the 1990s, when few in the wine industry were doing so.

"He was always keen on being environmentally responsible," says Fabian Yukich, Villa Maria's executive director of wineries and vineyards. "It started off with taking care of the land, because when we started, the market wasn't asking for it."

However, it's not just about taking care of the land. As many New Zealand winemakers have reported after switching to organics, organic growing, if done well, produces healthy grapes with thicker skins and complex flavours - which in turn produces great wine. "We are very happy with the wines we are getting off the organic blocks," Yukich says. "We're certainly getting equal or better quality."

This has paid off in awards for Villa Maria's organic merlot, gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc. These days, wine drinkers are more ready to go organic, especially overseas. Villa Maria's organic wines are finding especially willing markets in Europe, where the profile of organics is high.

Health from the earth and moon
While the world catches up with the secrets of health that organic farmers have known for years, some of the original pioneers keep exploring. This is the case of long-time biodynamic producers like Weleda in Hawkes Bay, who grow a wide range of medicinal plants for their popular natural health remedies. Weleda grows about 50 species of medicinal plants on their ten lovingly tended hectares in Hawkes Bay. Their products range from echinacea for the immune system to natural toothpastes to muscle soothing creams. Weleda are certified biodynamic, meaning that on top of using strictly organic methods, they use special natural practices to boost plant vigour.

Biodynamic growers look not just to the earth but to the heavens. The moon has been shown to have a strong effect on plants, just as it affects the tides, so Weleda time their seed sowing and planting with the ideal phases of the moon. Biodynamics also sees each farm as a self-sufficient whole, humming with diversity and providing for its own needs.

"We consider our ten hectare farm is more than just growing crops," says director Fred Dryburgh. Everything on the farm is connected: "We aim to be largely self-sufficient, producing material for compost making on site. The cows are an essential part of this. The health of our soil is central to the health and high quality of our plants."

"In contrast to other organic growers who have gone big and high tech, our crops are extremely labour intensive, using low technology, but with a high level of conscious awareness." Weleda's reputation for high-integrity products, with "no nasties" in its ingredient lists, has found them well-placed as more people look for natural health approaches.

From small beginnings in 1955, the business "has grown organically (excuse the pun) over the years," says Fred Dryburgh. "There is much more awareness these days about organics and sustainability, the bedrock of Weleda's foundation, so there is a real openness to our offerings. Along with this there are many new companies entering into the market. So, interesting times."

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