When Juno, 6, Gryphon, 4, and Fox, 2 hunger for a snack it’s more likely to be a tasty kale leaf, sunflower sprout or a sprig of coriander than chips or sweets.
Because the children of market gardeners Brad Harding and Rachel Yeats are growing up surrounded by vegetables – eating them is as natural as breathing.
It’s not just their children who enjoy what Brad and Rachel grow. Their business, ‘Handcrafted Produce’, has a loyal following among those who attend the weekly Farmers Market in Tauranga as well as individual clients, local retailers, and restaurants.
The couple’s produce has also won national acclaim. Their entry of baby carrots, radish and turnips in the 2017 Farmers Market New Zealand Winter Food Awards category ‘Dirt on the Roots’ was highly commended, and their popular fancy salad mix received the combo runner up in ‘Dirt off the Roots’ section.
That’s pretty good for the new venture which has faced successes and setbacks since it began in May last year. That’s when the couple took over the lease of around half a hectare of land at Te Puna and began working up the former pasture land to become a market garden.
“We prepared a business plan and ensured we had a contingency for things which might go wrong,” says Rachel.
“We were pleased we had that buffer when the garden got flooded during Cyclone Debbie in April this year. We had just re-planted when Cyclone Cook hit. That was really hard because we hadn’t anticipated two big hits one after the other like that.”
However, Brad attended to drainage issues and once again planted out the gardens. Financially it was also tough for the couple with a young family who had decided to take the brave step of becoming self-employed.
Brad, who has completed permaculture design courses run by Dan Palmer of Very Edible Gardens, has previously managed nurseries and production gardens for Bloomz, Hydroponic Fresh, Koanga Institute and Incredible Edibles.
With a background in teaching, media and communications, Rachel is equally at home with her hands on the keyboard as in the soil, and manages the business to ensure the social enterprise thrives and maintains connections to its local community.
The move to start their own business came from a desire to not only be self-employed and produce nutrient-dense foods, but also to teach others to do the same.
“We intend to use our holistically-managed market garden at Te Puna as a training ground for youth at a social disadvantage in our community.”
That’s already started in a small way with some students spending holiday time at the gardens, but plans are to increase those opportunities in future. Currently, the farm hosts three organic horticulture students and hopes to extend this programme to high school students next year.
However, establishing the gardens and successfully growing and harvesting vegetables, plus selling them, is the focus right now.
“We’re in our first year of certification and regardless of the status of the lease we want to show our customers that we’re committed to organics and accountability.
“We grow ‘beyond organically’ which means that all our growing methods go above and beyond the organic standards for certification. We place our emphasis on growing produce only for local market and sourcing all our inputs locally also.
“We only sell produce within the Bay of Plenty and prioritise supporting local businesses. We aim to grow produce that is not just free of toxic chemical residues but also nutrient-dense. We call what we do ‘Moreganic’, and we love talking to people about it.”
The land is leased from Alison and Drew Cowley (according to Brad and Rachel, the best possible landlords). Neat rows of vegetables grow through weed mat, a system Brad says reduces the otherwise timely and costly task of weed control. “We don’t use any chemicals so the only option is weed mat, or weeding.”
The garden has a small flock of ducks and one goose. Her job is to scare away the pukeko which would otherwise pull out young plants. The ducks are the pest controllers. “We move their pen to rows we have harvested and they make short work of any slugs and snails.”
Any plant material left over from harvesting is piled in a compost heap in the duck pen where the birds thoroughly work through it finding slugs, snails and other insect pests. “After that we cover it to form compost.”
Brad and Rachel have erected a plastic house in which to grow tomatoes, and in another, sprout a wide range of micro-greens. They also propagate all their vegetable and edible flower plants from seeds.
The crops the couple grow include lettuce, kale, Asian greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, micro-greens, pumpkins, spring onions, beets, radishes, turnips, spinach and strawberries.
Virtually everything on site is carried out by hand but Brad has recently bought a small tractor which will enable him to shallow-till beds much more quickly in alignment with their low/no-till philosophy for soil health.
An ingenious harvesting machine is used to cut salad greens from their beds. Operated by a battery drill, it has a blade which cuts the leaves, and soft brushes which flick the leaves into a catcher. It’s saved Brad hours of work harvesting greens using a knife.
Once picked, salad vegetables are rinsed twice in baths in the garden’s processing shed, then put in large net bags to be spun in a washing machine bowl. From there vegetables are placed onto a large ‘sieve’ bench with fans fixed above. Gently tossing the leaves under the fans removes any remaining water before the vegetables are packed into plastic bags and placed in the chiller.
What makes Rachel and Brad’s salad mix so special is the variety of plants it contains. There’s tender young leaves of several colours and flavours, plus sprouts and petals from edible flowers. “It’s an eye-catching mix which is very popular, even in winter when salads aren’t traditionally eaten,” says Rachel.