Ask the average shopper about NZ organic fruit and vege production and they’ll likely picture blueberries, kiwifruit, grapes, carrots, maybe sweetcorn or peas. But it was the humble pumpkin - more specifically the lumpy green kabocha squash - which got Hawkes Bay couple Scott Lawson and partner Vicki Meech excited about the potential of organics. It was 1992 and the Lawson family had sold some family property and bought farming land. Scott’s dad and brother moved into wine - the Te Awa vineyard which was later sold to Villa Maria. And 20-something Scott, an engineer by training, got into organic vegetables.
Scott says he and Vicki chose the organic route because they wanted to get away from an “insurance policy” attitude towards farming (where growers try to protect themselves against what might happen) towards a “systems approach of building resilience into our farming”. And their first major customers were the Japanese, who couldn’t get enough organically-grown kabocha. But the Japanese wanted certification, so in 1994, the farm got Bio-Gro certification, and the couple launched the True Earth brand in 1999.
Over the years the product mix has changed. These days Lawson’s True Earth grows blueberries, potatoes, carrots and onions, as well as pumpkins. About 80% of the company’s production goes into the domestic market (from healthfood stores and independent retailers to supermarkets) with the 20% exports being mostly blueberries to Australia. The business has 12 full-time staff and up to 70 seasonal workers.
Scott says certification is critically important for the business. “You can’t sell in the retail market without being certified, particularly in supermarkets. The customers are becoming more discerning than they used to be and shoppers are more educated. They want something that is visually appealing and which has wellness benefits as well.”
Scott and Vicki are strong supporters of maintaining New Zealand’s ban on organic certification for hydroponic producers.
“There are only a handful of crops that are naturally hydroponic - watercress and wasabi, for example,” Scott says. “For everything else, you need soil to get healthy biological production systems. It’s about the interaction with humus and the nutrients so you get a healthy product.”
While New Zealand’s organic growers shouldn’t close themselves to debate, Scott says any change to the rules prohibiting organic hydroponics risks lowering our organic standards.
Meanwhile, after 25 years in the business, Scott has a few tips for organic farmers:
Grow what is going to be good in your climate. For example, with the hot dry conditions in Hawkes Bay, onions go really well. That’s not going to work so well in Pukekohe.
Grow to a market plan. Figure out your market and talk to a distributor.
Know your numbers. Know your cost of production and your margins. Farmers should have a calculator in one hand and a spade in the other.