Diversifying at Karapiro for the Lettuce Man

September 2014

Tree planting and athlete accomodation have been added to a hydroponic lettuce business

Entrepreneur Ian Kerr has a rural business with some diverse income streams from; hydroponic lettuce, a lodge for sports teams to stay in, and he’s planting a special new manuka hybrid for honey production.

Until a few years ago, East Coast born Ian Kerr was farming sheep and beef and starting to develop a small tourism operation on an atoll in the Fiji Islands. He says it was an idyllic lifestyle although there were challenges. The sheep were a self-shedding variety developed in Australia that behaved like goats.

A few years ago he decided to move back to New Zealand so his children could go to school here. He bought a 25ha scrubby block near Karapiro and started clearing it. More than half the property is now grass, and he’s currently planting the rest back into trees. He also set up an hydroponic system for growing lettuces, herbs and salad greens.

Ian sells his lettuce at the local Farmers Markets in Cambridge and Hamilton and enjoys the direct contact with consumers and getting their feedback. He can also test new and unique varieties on them. He says the community of growers is really strong, and there’s an informal bartering system.

Although he’s known as the “Lettuce Man”, he also grows a number of different salad and vegetable crops on the property. He has a planting of hybrid blackberries for the farmers market and capsicum and tomatoes are also grown hydroponically. The crops are all spray free.

Because the property is located close to Lake Karapiro, Ian has built a substantial lodge for sports teams such as elite cyclists and rowers. He also hosts 4WD training and other certification courses.

About two thirds of the electricity requirements of the businesses are met by wind and waterpower generated on the property. He has his own hydro station, that produces about two thirds of the power for the property. He hopes to put in a solar system to support power supply when prices for equipment come down. His own power runs the accommodation complex, the lights and heat pump, and he stores power in deep cell batteries. “A lot of the gear I had from Fiji, which probably saved me quite a bit of money, so it wasn’t a big capital outlay,” he says.

The hydroponics business has grown significantly, and now produces 15,000 units in a year-round operation. During winter, Ian grows spinach, bok choy and kales, and mixes for people juicing their veges. Ian says juicing customers spend around $20 to $30 a time. Everything is sold through the farmers markets in Cambridge on Saturdays and Hamilton on Sundays, and he’s looking at expanding to a third market at Te Awamutu which runs during the summer months. He’s also considering going to an Auckland market once the business is producing surplus plants.

Until now he has managed by himself with no other staff inputs, but this is likely to change as he expands. He now has a commercial packing facility too, where he bags up the plants. To make life easier and to speed up sales at the farmers market, he now sells $5 bags, which vary in content depending on what he can supply on the day. When the market is particularly busy, for instance at Christmas time, people will wait 40 minutes for a lettuce.

Sprays are not used in the greenhouse, which isn’t usually a problem because of the quick turnover – from seeds to sale takes only a month during summer. In winter, the salad lines grow a bit more slowly and are generally in the cloches for five to six weeks. Ian also plays classical music 24 hours a day to his plants – rock music is detrimental to their growth! In addition to the hydroponics growing system Ian has a lot of fruit trees and is growing a few new blackberries. He preserves a lot of fruit from his own trees and this fruit is used in the lodge.

The lodge began life as a hayshed and is now a purpose built facility for sports teams to stay in, particularly cycling and rowing teams. Ian offers a total overnight package for school students and is targeting Auckland schools in particular. He’s also working on the orienteering market. Orienteering is the fastest growing sport in Auckland schools, and the students like using the GPS technology and working in teams. On the 25km property there are kilometres of tracks and these tracks also give access for the restoration and planting project Ian has underway.

The lodge itself is all consented and although it doesn’t have huge occupancy, it can sleep up to 40 people. Farmsafe uses the property for training 4WD drivers and certification, as well as chainsaw and quad bike training.

Ian is undertaking a gully restoration using manuka, and is working with researchers from the University of Waikato who are testing a new hybrid for manuka honey production. The work is confidential at the moment, but Ian says is very exciting. This year he’s planting 500 manuka trees and he hopes to have 3000 growing for next season.

Ian is really busy with the different aspects of his business and doesn’t’ have any time off, but he is working hard to expand the business so that it can employ people. “The next step forward is quite a leap,” he says.