Straw Hat Gardens - Invercargill - New Zealand - En

We arrive at the end of a small street. Behind the childcare center, there they are. Neat rows of abundant leafy vegetables on the one side, tarp-covered areas on the other side for future beds. Two small greenhouses, one full of future tomatoes and the other with the seedlings for the next crop rotation. You know the saying « Small is beautiful » ? Well that is it ! 

We meet Jennifer and Mike. Crazy coincidence, Jennifer is French ! From New Caledonia where they have both lived 6 years before coming back to Mike's home region in New Zealand. They were during 8 years cattle farmers, taking care of the dairy farm for the owner. Huge farm, huge cattle and as such, huge investments which meant a lot of pressure to do more, better and faster all the time. 500 cows to milk in 2hours everyday. Big scale industry style which they decided to quit to go into the opposite direction : small-scale, low investment, short-supply chain, organic market-gardening. They are following the Master class of JM Fortier, a canadian vegetable grower who developped a systematic method to make a successful small-scale organic vegetable growing business.

Mike explains what is the system he is applying : "Basically the system is permanent raised beds, no till or minimal tillage so with minimum disturbance of the soil. Really looking after the soil so putting in compost, compost teas, organic matter,... is very important. One of the main feature is standardization, so that everything is the same length so that everything is easy to transfer from one bed to another. The biggest thing about being on a small area is rotating crops. As soon as one crop is finished, we put something else to grow there, this is the way to get profitable on a small-scale."

Even crazier when you look at the picture, imagine that they started all this only three months ago ! This cultivated area was pasture 90 days before ! Their first market day was the sunday before we met. Incredible what can be achieved when properly done in such a short time ! Even shorter as Mike and Jennifer still retain half-time jobs for the moment with the aim to give those up when they earn enough with their vegetables.

Once all the areas are cultivated, the gardens are expected to be 1,5 acres so a bit more than half a hectare. At the moment they grow more than 15 different vegetables chosen primarily for their taste and colors. As says Mike about the customers : « The color brings them in and the taste keeps them coming back. » The range of vegetable is limited by the organic seeds available in New-Zealand. A few months ago they started with putting down the tarps on the areas to be cultivated first in order to knock the grass first. Then they rented a small rotary hoe pulled by a small tractor to till the ground. The beds were then shaped by hand with shovels. This first bit was done when they were still working full-time jobs. The beds were then covered again with tarps and uncovered progressively as they were being sawed. The soil is then only worked with a broadfork after this initial tilling.  

When asked about the general status of organic farming in New Zealand, this is their reply :

« Organic is still a little bit of a niche market in New Zealand. There isn't a lot of mainstream organic but there is a lot of demand for it. Especially lately with all the cooking shows and social medias and the likes, people are more aware about what goes into their food. There are more and more conventional farms which are being converted into organic which is awesome. Locally, where we are, we are the only ones doing commercial organic vegetables. So when we went to our first market last sunday, people were over the moon. One lady came to our stall and saw our vegetables and said « oh it looks like a fairy tale ! ». So (fingers crossed!) I think we are at the tip of an iceberg hopefully.

Well when your stall looks like a fairy tale, i'd say Mike and Jennifer are doing it right ! And people are recognizing it right away. Often there is a belief we find in the various countries we've been so far that you can't really make a living out of small scale farming, especially vegetable growing but on the other hand, we've seen before in Australia and we see here at the Strawhat Gardens, more and more motivated people coming back to the earth, hands in the soil, that prove it is possible and it makes them and the people eating their vegetables happy !




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