I like buying local whenever and wherever I can. I like to think that my fruit and veg have been cultivated carefully, with the minimum of chemicals, and that they have only had to travel a short distance to get to my local supermarket.
I haven't bought fruit from the States for years - it always tasted as though it had been picked before it was ready and had been sitting in a cold store for months so I gave up and waited til our fruit came into season.
It's always worth the wait. But I may well have to get used to buying fruit that has the same taste and texture as army field rations unless growers decide its worth their while continuing in a business that's coming under so much pressure.
The government announced a draft policy statement on highly productive land this week, from a market gardener's warehouse in Tuakau, south of Auckland. The policy is an attempt to halt urban encroachment into prime horticultural land and requires local government to plan for suburban expansion to try to preserve elite soils.
Experts, I found out this week, rate land on a scale from one to eight. The elite soils are class one – class eight are your sand dunes. And contrary to popular belief, New Zealand is not a rich and fertile land, with nutrient-rich soils ready and able to cultivate veges for the nation's dinner plates. Most of it is class six, good only for forestry and pasture.
Classes one two and three are the only classes that are really suitable for vege production. Once you get past three, you need a heap of fertiliser and that has economic and environmental issues for growers.
So there's only a limited amount of land we can grow on – and that's vanishing fast. According to Horticulture New Zealand, the country has lost about 10,000 hectares of growing land since 2001 – that's an area nearly the size of Hamilton. So it's great that the government recognises that the rich, and rare, class one land needs to be protected.
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But that's only part of the problem. Who's going to do the actual growing? The back-breaking and heart-breaking work of actually sowing, cultivating and picking the produce?
I received an email from a woman whose husband's family has been busting their guts out in Pukekohe for the past 60 years. She said they are tired and old, and none of the young ones want to give up good professions to work in the gardens. There are long hours – sometimes 24 hours a day during the peak season. There's mud in the winter, dust in the summer and complaints from the newbies who've purchased in the subdivisions nearby about the spraying. Costs are on the increase – machinery, fertiliser, seed and wages- and prices are coming down thanks to supermarkets hardnosed purchasing policies. Add to that an unreliable work force and increasing compliance rules around production and is it any wonder, she said, that gardeners are flogging off their land to the highest bidder and heading to the beach for a long and lazy retirement?
She certainly had a point. When I was in Mapua recently, just out of Nelson, I couldn't get over the number of subdivisions being built in the area. They were high-quality lifestyle block that were being sold to retirees, and families who had flexible working arrangements. These high-spec homes were on land where apple trees used to be.
Mapua, according to the locals, used to have hundreds of orchards, but just like the market gardeners in Puke, the families found that their kids didn't want a bar of being growers. Too hard, too uncertain. It simply wasn't worth it for them.
So good on the Government for recognising that some land is more than real estate. But it needs to go much further and legislate policies that support the farmers and growers cultivating that class one land. Otherwise the memory of biting into that juicy warm peach over summer and having the juices run down your chin will be just that – a memory – while our kids will grow up thinking that fruit grows on planes in chilled boxes.