Rows of carrots spaced with a precision that could not be done by the human eye give the first clue that the Hicks family runs a modern arable operation.
There are no sandals or hippy beads at Willowmere Organic Farm in Hororata.
On the contrary, cultivated rows of carrots and other crops are prepared and planted at the large operation owned by the Hicks family of Kelvin and his parents, John and Trish, with satellite- aligned GPS equipment.
Kelvin says they make the most of advanced technology to push organic production.
“We are using modern agri- tools and precision agriculture with GPS on tractors to try to look after the soils. This helps to keep tractors on the same wheel marks to reduce compaction of soils.
“Cultivation, drilling and inter- row cultivation [for weed removal] is done with GPS.
“It’s cutting fuel consumption by about 10 per cent and probably there is a 10 per cent saving with cultivating. It’s a good tool, but you have to know how to use it.”
He is confident there will always be a demand for food grown naturally by people concerned about the environment.
Willowmere is set on 120 hectares, with another 80ha of leased land added in the past few years to grow more green leaf barley and provide room to rotate potato and carrot crops.
The lease blocks had to be BioGro certified during a three- year process, made easier by being former sheep country with little history of herbicides.
Willowmere is one of only a handful of organic farms in Canterbury on this scale.
Throughout the year, it will grow 40ha of green-leaf barley, to be made into a health supplement, 10ha of carrots and 12ha of potatoes. Alongside the crops are 700 ewes and 120 replacement hoggets with 40 cattle run under organic principles.
Australian-born Hicks was introduced to organic farming when his parents ran an organic goat-milk operation near Canberra, but then went another direction.
“I did an engineering degree in Sydney and, after being brought up in Australia, mum and dad came back to New Zealand. I came here for a holiday and never left.”
The goat dairy business came about less by design and more by a serendipitous route. A young Kelvin was allergic to cow’s milk and his parents started with a single saanen goat.
Other people with the same problem approached the Hicks for milk. The business expanded until they were milking 100 goats and selling the milk to supermarkets and healthfood shops. In time, they also sold organic orange juice and other wholefood products.
Kelvin was only a schoolboy, but the organic principles rubbed off on him.
“We did that for philosophical reasons. I like the idea of looking after the environment and trying to produce healthy food for people and seeing the animals thrive.”
This route of the market finding the Hicks was to follow them later in New Zealand.
After the goat dairy business was sold in 1991, John and Trish looked around for about a year to find a farm and settled on a property just outside the small rural town of Hororata.
“It was originally a sheep farm. Wattie’s gave us some opportunities in the early 1990s in organic peas and carrots and that’s when we started and we went into the fresh market for carrots and [organic soup and food producer] Pitango came along.
“We started supplying maybe 100 kilograms a week to them and that could be four tonnes a week now. It eases off in the summer months, but gets busy in the soup season.”
After finishing his degree in 1992, Kelvin found it was difficult to get engineering work with the mining industry depressed.
He joined his parents at Willowmere and liked the “clean mountain air”, working with the environment to keep soils and plants balanced and the lifestyle of organic farming.
Today, he looks back on the decision he made with no regrets and his engineering background has come in handy.
Organising crops requires the same accuracy and attention to detail as engineering and he has designed inter-row cultivating equipment to remove weeds between vegetable rows that can’t be sprayed with herbicides.
Learning from his parents, he began taking over Willowmere’s management, gradually putting his own touch on the farm, introducing new technology and growing new crops such as green- leaf barley five years ago.
The BioGro certification restricts what fertilisers can be applied. Seaweed fertiliser is added to naturally feed crops and natural rock fertilisers to the soil.
Lime helps to balance calcium and magnesium levels in the soil and to get the earthworms cycling.
Alternative sprays, such as neem oil from a neem tree to combat carrot fly, are permitted.
Pesticides are avoided by rotating crops, with carrots not returning to the same soil for five years. Predator insects are attracted by flowering strips of psyllium and buckwheat grown alongside carrot crops.
Different varieties of carrot are grown in the search for the one with the best flavour, with some working better than others in organic farming.
Over the years, the selection has settled on chantenay carrots for supplying Pitango and sometimes Wattie’s and nantes carrots for the fresh market.
These varieties are generally not high users of nitrogen or phosphate, and have a natural resistance to pests.
Another pest that must be dealt with in potato crops is the psyllid. First found in New Zealand about five years ago, it leaves unsightly stripes in tubers and lowers yields. Without conventional sprays, the Hicks look to other alternatives.
A Lincoln University student has trialled a beetle at Willowmere, which has a voracious appetite, consuming 100 psyllids a day.
The cold winters at Hororata, near the Canterbury foothills, help keep the insects at bay by breaking their lifecycles.
The family have been supplying carrots for soup, sauce and other meals since Pitango started.
Over the years, production has increased to match demand.
“For us, it’s been about focusing on what the customer wants. The organic market has grown and it’s been about finding what Pitango wants and growing for them and the same for the fresh market.”
Processed and second-grade carrots are reserved for soup- making, with more carrots produced for the fresh market.
One-third of the fresh carrots go to supermarkets and the rest go to healthfood shops or are combined with other vegetables in box schemes.
The Hicks prefer to grow agria potatoes, a roasting and chipping variety with a yellowish flesh.
Both root crops can be demanding on soils. Carrots and potatoes are never grown two years in a row and are mixed with “above-ground” crops.
“We do lupins as a green manure crop and cultivate them in to the soil to add nitrogen to the system and are doing some green- leaf barley with a company called Claridges Organics.”
The green-leaf barley is dried and milled as a healthfood supplement and mixed from a powder form into a drink.
Again, the market found the Hicks and the crop has found a good market in Asia. Plantings have risen from 4ha a year to 40ha.
In yet another market-directed move, they used to supply beans, silverbeet, parsnips and other vegetables for baby food and stopped only because the company shifted to the North Island.
Their sheep flock and cattle continue to be an important part of the organic farm.
The sheep are a wiltshire and coopworth cross, providing hardy ewes and lambs with good growth rates, says Kelvin.
“Wiltshires are known to handle the organic system. It’s an older breed and has a high resistance to parasite burden.”
Lambing is at 140 per cent and growth rates of several hundred grams a day are achieved. Organic lamb and other sheepmeat is processed by the Alliance Group, with the meat fetching a premium in Britain.
The stock play their part in returning dung and urine to the soil to help the organic system, says Kelvin.
“The stocking rate isn’t as high, but the whole system works together. We have a high-value root crop and a cereal and then we go back to a pasture phase for five years, which is where the animals come in – to restore the soil and build fertility.”
There is a limit to what machinery can do on an organic farm and the weeds have to be hand-pulled where they grow between the carrot plants. The Hicks used to weed the carrots themselves, but they now rely on contract labour to do the work.
The caring touch is not restricted to food production and the many trees planted around the farm and plantings around creeks were recognised when the family became finalists in the Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards.
Kelvin has managed to run the dryland organic farm at Willowmere without irrigation, but he is open to the concept, particularly with the large Central Plains Water scheme proposal due to bring new water.
Organic farming is no different from conventional farming and farmers are always on the lookout for new opportunities, he says.
They also have to be good at problem-solving.
For carrot growing, this requires looking ahead two to three years before a crop is planted and assessing weed problems.
Weeds such as california thistle and twitch have to be cleared before a paddock is ready to grow carrots. Carrots are poor competitors and won’t grow well alongside weeds or the residue of earlier crops.
Without chemical sprays, organic farming requires an ability to anticipate problems to keep soils healthy, fertile and free of herbicides and other chemicals, he says.
(Source – http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/cropping/8993583/Organic-carrots-no-hippy-operation)