By JO-MARIE BROWN
Geothermally heated glasshouses have sprung up in a remote part of the central North Island as part of a new multimillion-dollar export business which is creating much-needed jobs for locals.
Around 175,000 capsicum and tomato plants are now flourishing at Mokai, 28km northwest of Taupo, after a local Maori land trust, looking to create employment opportunities, joined forces with Auckland-based exporters New Zealand Gourmet.
Tuaropaki Trust member Sam Andrews said 45 people from Mokai, Mangakino and Tokoroa now had full-time work with the new company, Gourmet Mokai.
"The benefits for the community are huge because they're no longer unemployed and wondering what they're going to do. They all now have jobs that are close to home," Mr Andrews said.
The $10 million high-tech glasshouses cover 5ha and are one of only a few such sites in the world using geothermal heat to create perfect growing conditions.
Tuaropaki Trust also owns a nearby geothermal power station and plans are under way to pump its carbon dioxide emissions to the glasshouses as a source of food for the plants.
"Really we're trying to diversify away from forestry and farming," Mr Andrews said.
"The geothermal resource which is on our property is a taonga [treasure] and an asset which we are trying to fully utilise."
Most of New Zealand's tomatoes and capsicums are grown around Auckland, but co-director of Gourmet Mokai, Ton Zwetsloot, said the central North Island provided ideal climatic conditions.
"Cooler temperatures are actually good because the tomatoes and capsicum plants think they're going to die so they begin reproducing. As long as they have the right amount of light they'll do very well," he said.
Computers controlling the ventilation, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and heating within the glasshouses ensure the temperature stays between 18C and 24C inside, depending on the crop.
"People look at how much glass we have here and think oh, it must be 40C inside," Mr Zwetsloot said.
"But when there's a big crop in there it breathes and cools the air so it can actually be cooler inside than out."
Mokai's tomatoes and capsicums will primarily be exported to Japan and Australia but some will go to supplying the local market.
Rachel Phillips, a solo mother-of-five from Mangakino, said she had been receiving a social welfare benefit for the past 21 years.
"I was about to apply for a job at Woolworths in Taupo - although it's quite a distance away - when this came up," she said.
"It's fabulous. I'm no longer on the couch when the kids go to school. I can see myself doing this for another 10 years because it gives us a much better quality of life."
Mr Andrews said expansion plans were already under way which could see Gourmet Mokai's operation double in size over the next few years.
"We might grow more tomatoes and capsicums or we might grow something new altogether. We don't know at this stage," he said. "But everything's coming together really well so far. It's quite unbelievable."
By JO-MARIE BROWN