When I first reach Frans de Jong at his Matamata orchard Southern Belle, he asks me to call him back in five minutes since he’s busy checking the weather. “A very important part of the job,” Frans tells me through a joyous laugh and a thick Netherlands accent.
A family-run business, Southern Belle is the current supplier of delicious Red Sweetpoint capsicums to dozens of Ooooby customers each week. It also produces feijoas.
Last April the orchard was announced Supreme winner of the Waikato Farm Environment Awards where it collected the Harvest Award, the Innovation Award, the Integrated Management Award and the Soil Management Award. “It was very humbling,” says Frans who tells me that his arm had to be twisted to even enter the competition. “As a family, we usually work longer hours than most. But I’d like to turn that into a positive.”
Frans credits marking oneself out from the crowd as the biggest challenge for smallholders and a factor likely to determine whether or not they will achieve success. “We’ve established ourselves as a quality grower by doing things totally differently,” he tells me. “That’s not to say it’s always easy to do, but you have differentiate yourself to make it work.”
So how did he do it? While at first the de Jong’s listened to advice from the previous owners of their farm, it wasn’t until Frans applied his own background in analytical chemistry to processes at Southern Belle that the magic started to happen.
“You start to look at things differently and understand the biological system,” Frans explains. “For example, learning to use predator insects to control harmful insects and beneficial soil microbes in the root zone to control root disease.” Frans took an experimental approach to soil fertility, nutrient and water management to establish the best, most sustainable way to grow nutrient-rich produce that requires as little spraying as possible.
This test and learn approach has paid off handsomely, with Frans having devised a greenhouse heating system and irrigation method that ensures no nutrients are lost from the varieties of capsicums being grown on the farm. The system has also significantly reduced the amount of energy used to grow capsicums compared to other methods. “It’s been a great challenge,” Frans says. “I’ve learned a lot but when you get better products for your consumers it makes all the hard work worth it.” That same infectious laugh from the start of our phone call is rolled out again as Frans philosophises: “Whatever you learn, whatever education you have; it somehow comes back to you.”
For organic orchardist Clare Buckner, the core challenge of being a successful smallholder is making ends meet.
Speaking to me from the rather idyllic-sounding Te Koha Organics that she runs with fellow orchardist Erin Simpson in Hawkes Bay, Clare tells me how the pair originally bought two blocks, a 14.5 hectare orchard near Havelock North and later a 4.5ha block of mixed orchard, but later had to sell the larger one after the recession hit some four or so years ago.
Since then, Erin has worked off the block when it became unsustainable for the business to employ them both, while Clare teaches Sustainable Horticulture Fruit Production Methods to students at the Eastern Institute of Technology on top of running the orchard. “Sometimes the costs are the same as my income,” she reports with a sunny disposition that doesn’t quite seem to match her words. “Often there is not much in it. The challenge is always financial. It’s a real hand to mouth existence.”
A pain point for Clare is how few consumers appreciate the process involved in getting an apple from the orchard and into their organic-hungry jaws. Fruit is also still exported from the orchard, which Clare says comes with a whole other set of costs and challenges.
“For the apple to be grown, the trees need to be pruned, the orchard needs to be mown, the fruit needs be picked and packed and then it needs to be transported – I pretty much do all of that,” she tells me.
“I can only do that because I’ve been an orchardist for many years. I know how to get the forklift going and how to do my PAYE. Farming isn’t something you want to come into from a totally different background. Managing a business like this you’ve got to have a huge skill base. If you end up paying people to do these jobs you’ll end up never making any money.”
It’s also a frustration that in general, people are unwilling to try new varieties of apples. “Trying to get people to try new, unfamiliar varieties of fruit is difficult,” Clare says. “People want Pacific Rose when we have many other varieties of apple growing in our orchard. But everyone knows what a Pacific Rose is. They’re actually very hard to grow because they’re a weak tree. We wouldn’t grow them if we could afford to drop them.”
At this point in a conversation I mention to Clare that a lot of people might ask her why she continues. She immediately begins waxing lyrical about how beautiful the orchard is and the how it allows her to make a unique contribution to her local community.
“This is a beautiful place to live,” she gushes. “I love growing fruits and as a job I really enjoy doing working on an orchard.
For several years Clare has sold her produce cheaply to the community weekly at a local farmer’s market.
She continues: “I have three children and dogs – it’s a real home. We have a lot of children who often come out and stay with us. “They can swim in the pond, pick apples. It’s nice to be able to share that with your community. It’s nice to have surplus of fruit and to be able to share that with people around me.”
The real challenge for smallholders it seems is less the hardship of not making a million out of it and more about whether they can maintain the level of dedication and passion required to make it work.
The joy and the pleasure in the voices of Frans and Clare when they spoke about how much they love what they do was as clear and present as the honest intent behind every new seed they sew and every piece of earth they moved to ensure you get the best possible produce delivered direct to your door in the form of your next Ooooby box. And for that alone, they are heroes in our kitchens.