After 27 years of organic growing, Hawke’s Bay couple Scott Lawson and Vicki Meech have downsized to focus on their blueberry crop.

Many readers will be familiar with the carrots, potatoes, onions and other vegetables sold under Scott and Vicki’s True Earth brand. Now, with the decision to reduce their operation from a variety of broadacre annual crops, blueberries will be the sole offering from True Earth.

“We either got bigger or got out,” Scott says. “We compromised, got smaller, and stayed in. That has allowed us to remain involved in quality food production. Permanent crop production is easier to manage than vegetables in scale. We own less land and relinquished the role of kaitiaki over the land to local mana whenua, which was something we took very seriously.”

Growing is in the genes

Vicki and Scott have known each other for most of their lives, having both been brought up on Hawke’s Bay orchards. They share a passion for growing high quality fresh food going back into their childhoods. More truthfully, Scott had a passion for machinery that encompassed growing – he recalls driving the tractor at age nine. By the time he reached his final year at college he was leasing land to grow kabocha (Japanese squash) for the Japanese market.

“The Japanese wanted ‘green growing’ as it was known in the early 1980s,” says Scott. “No fertilisers, fungicides, or insecticides. We were able to do that very well and grew kabocha as a family.”

In 1992 Scott and Vicki purchased from Lawson family members a 62-hectare block which had originally been a low-input sheep farm. Scott converted 24 hectares to certified organic production. With enormous support from BioGro, and in particular the late Mark Levick, they began growing crops on it, becoming pioneers in commercial organic vegetable crop production.

“We were looking to do low-input green growing,” says Scott. “That was our focus and we progressively extended the original certified 24 hectares until we were fully certified organic in 1999.”

Initial crops included broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, pumpkins, kabocha, onions, and cereal crops – which included quinoa in 1995. In 2001, the family planted their first blueberries, a permanent crop that would deliver a highly nutritious food. They became one of New Zealand’s larger certified organic vegetable and berry-fruit producers.

Blueberry varieties

In mid-2019 True Earth sold much of their land to local growers, retaining twelve hectares of blueberries and buildings. Their crop has expanded over the years to include more than a dozen cultivars, mainly from two blueberry varieties, the Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum), and the Rabbiteye (Vaccinium vergatum).

Highbush is a North American blueberry, native to high snow country. Coming out of dormancy in winter, which in Canada might be -20°C, Highbush is the first to flower and to harvest. At the first breath of spring it pops into flower, and leaf buds follow.

Rabbiteye is likely to have a longer life overall (more than 20 years), is virtually disease-free, and the fruit is a little hardier and, some say, sweeter. Rabbiteyes can grow up to 20 feet without pruning while Highbush generally reach maximum height at six to eight feet.

Each cultivar has its own growing characteristics, fruiting season, storage qualities, and flavour profiles. The O’Neil is one of the most widely grown Highbush cultivars, but Scott says New Zealand-bred cultivars such as Rahi also have great flavour profiles.

Pest and frost protection

Blueberries produce good harvests on free-draining mineral or high organic matter soils with a low ph, good shelter from wind, and good frost protection. In New Zealand very few pests affect blueberries, which made them attractive for Scott and Vicki as organic growers. Thrips – tiny, winged sap-sucking insects – do however make a nuisance of themselves.

 “Some blueberry varieties are more prone than others,” says Scott. “That’s key, but you can make a big difference by getting rid of thrip host plants such as long grass under the blueberries. Certain organic products can help short term, but you shouldn’t need them if the soils have been correctly developed and the plants have high brix (nutrient density) levels, which naturally confer resistance via the plant’s own defence mechanisms.”

From July to September Scott often spends the night out in the fields sleeping in the ute so he can be on the spot for the frost-fight.

“We fight frost with sprinklers,” says Scott. “Frost generates heat, so by coating the fruit with water, we can encourage an ice-jacket to encapsulate the fruit and protect it from frost damage.”

Picking and packing for the markets

Blueberries generally flower in September or October, and fruit from as early as November right through to May. Harvesting continues as each variety ripens. Fruit growing is always weather dependent, and harvesting can’t be done in heavy rain. The up to 40 seasonal workers True Earth employs snatch their breaks in between each flush of fruit as it ripens. Each blueberry bush, depending on the variety, is picked as many as ten times during the season.

The entire blueberry harvest is sold fresh to domestic and export markets. True Earth has a joint venture with an exporter who takes a large percentage of their 50,000 kg annual crop. Domestic-only fruit is packaged in returnable plastic hire crates, and export plus long-distance domestic fruit is packed in cardboard boxes with recycled plastic clamshell punnets.

Successful blueberry cultivation depends on the location, soil type, and climate, but high capital investment in the orchard and post-harvest operations also need to be taken into consideration, along with the availability of all-important labour and, not least, a competitive marketplace.

Organics flourish with integrity, planning, and support

As part of living a busy grower lifestyle for almost three decades, Vicki and Scott are frequently multi-tasking – e.g. continuing to pack fruit while discussing the ins and outs of growing blueberries with me on the phone.

Over their years of involvement, they’ve seen a lot of changes in the organic sector.

“More large-scale retailers generally support organics now. Before that, New Zealand independent local retailers started the nuts and bolts,” says Scott. “Since the inception of BioGro [1983] the certified organic industry in New Zealand has been way ahead of conventional production in traceability and record-keeping. Conventional systems are catching up with the adoption of verification programmes such as NZGAP (New Zealand Good Agricultural Practice) – a quality assurance system of verification of on-farm activities.”

Scott chairs the Hawke’s Bay Vegetable Growers Association and is involved in the wider Hawkes Bay horticultural industry. “It’s putting back into an industry that has given me so much. I like in the organic industry that many of us share common philosophies, along with our knowledge.”

He has also been involved with Pure Hawke’s Bay, a farmer and grower group that was among those who successfully campaigned for a ban on outdoor GE in their area. Hastings District Council implemented a ban in 2015. 

If you’re thinking of growing organically, Scott recommends doing it with integrity, with planning, and with the support of as many people as you can get – whether they’re growing advisors, retail customers, or family members. It’s a hard road, but with support it’s very worthwhile.

Family focus and new directions

A highlight of Scott and Vicki’s organic career has been bringing up their children in a family business environment, producing healthy foods for many other families.

The couple have two sons, who are practical, hands-on, and have always been a great help around the farm. Now they are encouraged to follow their passions. Harry (20) is doing a building apprenticeship in Auckland and is involved with hockey, and Felix (17) is in Year Twelve, still deciding on a direction.

For Vicki and Scott, their new phase of life looks set to be quite different. The family’s home garden has languished, becoming secondary to day-to-day operations, but perhaps soon they will have more time for it. For now their focus is on growing great blueberries and taking a little more time off than vege cropping allowed.

True Earth at a glance

  • Location: Ngatarawa, Hawkes Bay
  • Hectares: 12 hectares (originally 62)
  • Crop: Blueberries (12+ varieties)
  • Annual production: Approx. 50 tonnes
  • Markets: Domestic and export (mainly to Australia)
  • Organic certification: BioGro – partial 1992 – full 1999

trueearth.co.nz

Blueberry goodies

The rave about blueberries is well founded; the fruit rates as one of the highest sources of antioxidants and flavonoids, which can help reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.

Blueberries rank well in the vitamin C stakes with a cup providing 24% of the recommended daily intake (RDI), 36% RDI of vitamin K, and other important vitamins and nutrients. A whole cup is only 80 calories but delivers around 4 grams of fibre.

They’re sweet, freeze well (although six months in the freezer may cause the loss of some nutrients), and they’re as delicious in baking as they are fresh.

Copyright Theresa Sjoquist October 2019

First published in Organic NZ Magazine – January/February 2020 – Vol 79 No.1

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