Closing the distribution gap between the consumer and the producer may seem like an unattainable vision in our food system in 2020, as globalisation has created distant supply chains.
As featured in Shepherdess magazine (Spring 2020)
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Farmers markets are reconnecting us all with how our food is produced direct to the source. The markets have an abundance of salt-of-the-earth women who passionately nurture their plot of land in aim to provide for others.
Every Saturday for the past 8 years, Penny Sewell has been set up at the Lyttelton farmers market rain hail and shine with her treasured harvest of nutrient dense organic vegetables.
“I have been seeing the same customers every weekend for 7-8 years. It’s so rewarding,” says Penny.
Spring Collective supplies Canterbury locals at three farmers markets, direct to restaurants & wholesalers as well as couriered vegetable boxes to homes with over 20 tonnes of fresh produce each weekly they have grown.
Penny runs Spring Collective, along with friends Dominique Schacherer and Logan Kerr on their leased 21 hectare property at Leeston growing an extensive range of 70 varieties from salad greens and spinach, tomatoes and cucumbers and root crops such as yams and beetroot.
“We shared a common vision for providing sustainable, ethical, organic produce but individually our skills were only in a dozen or so varieties so together we can provide a year round variety to our customers,” explains Dominique.
They describe their business partnership as a co-operative whereby they are all individually responsible for their own plots but share workload, knowledge, staff, equipment and distribution.
Penny established her organic vegetable growing business kind of by accident as she started growing a handful of crops on a leased plot at the Lincoln University when she was studying and starting selling excess vegetables to her friends.
Having grown up on a lifestyle property near Tai Tapu with her parents plant nursery business, Penny's initial career plans wasn’t horticulture as she was attracted to the bright lights of Christchurch to do English Literature at University of Canterbury.
She began looking after the University’s community garden and caught the gardening bug.
When she made the switch to the two-year course at the Biological Husbandry Unit (BHU) at Lincoln University, she was encouraged to use the University’s plot of land to grow and market her own certified organic produce on a semi-commercial scale.
Whilst Penny was getting the formal training, Dominique & Logan discovered their interest in market gardening when they were working as WOOFERS (Workers On Organic Farms) and leased an acre of land learning purely by trial and error.
The trio pooled their resources and respective talents together in 2017 to lease 10 hectares from Penny’s parents before recently expanding to lease the neighbouring sheep & beef property.
"We still do need some more land so we can plan long term rotation and rest land in cover crops to feed the soil and build the soil up. It would also be great to rotate organic livestock as well," states Penny.
To achieve their vision of restorative and regenerative horticulture practices it is ideal to rest one third of the land in rotation.
The land based southeast of Dunsandel has multiple loams of different soil types due to being set back from the Irwell river making it good for growing a variety of vegetables.
Traditional market gardens specialise in a handful of crops on mass, as the economics of their horticulture business are to be a major supplier of one variety to get supply contracts with supermarkets.
Spring Collective’s vision to supply such a large variety of crops year round has it’s array of challenges.
“It’s crucial that we have developed one-on-one personal relationships with our chefs and wholesalers to work with them to not only plant the type of vegetables they will be demanding but also the volume. We work really hard to avoid food waste from overgrowing something that won’t have a demand for it,” says Dominique.
They pick to order which helps avoid excess supply, but also use the farmers market & vege boxes as a great way to sell any over abundance of that week's ripe vegetable.
Over the past three years the business has grown rapidly to employee 16 staff from harvest to distribution and are a living wage accredited business.
With the primary sector crying out for staff in labour intensive jobs, Spring Collective does not seem to have trouble attracting and retaining staff.
“We have many of our crew stay with us for a long period of time as they love the variety of the different crops and not working with pesticides. We have young staff fall in love with horticulture after working a summer holiday and go on to study organic horticulture at the BHU,” explains Penny.
On the day of the photo shoot the Spring Collective staff of mainly women are proudly harvesting red onions and weeding between the rows of the beans. The farm has only two tunnel houses on its 21 hectares that are used for germinating seeds and growing cucumbers.
The Canterbury plains offers great fertile soils for market gardening but comes with its climatic challenges. In October last year their crops were battered by a hailstorm and then a cold snap knocked back the growth.
With over 70 different varieties of vegetables grown in rotation it comes with a complex sowing schedule. Weed and disease management practices are crucial to their success and even more of a challenge to uphold organic certification with no use of pesticides.
Floating mesh row covers are extensively used across the Leeston property to support the establishment of the plant and for weed control as the weave of the woven plastic mesh is too tight for the likes of carrot rust fly or the tomato potato pysllid to get through.
The physical work of market gardening doesn’t seem to worry Penny & Dominique and they feel very supported in the local farming community.
“Most of the old dudes at the farm machinery place or at the Farmlands stores are super supportive of what we are doing. It’s more the hipster males from Christchurch at the farmers markets that make comments about how we physically get on,” says Penny.