Hydroponic Herbs and Greens

August 2010

A spray-free hydroponic vegetable garden, producing greens for a Farmers' Market

About 12 years ago Northland growers Murray and Nicky Burns helped set up the Whangarei Growers Market in a bid to take on the supermarket dominated fresh produce supply.

At the time the couple was growing tomatoes at a loss for the supermarket trade. These days theyve got a hydroponic garden producing lettuces and herbs for their local market.

Murray and Nicky live at Kauri - land that was once a dairy farm - not far from Whangarei.

Murray has been growing vegetables since he was 15 years old. At one stage was a kiwi fruit grower. He has some chemical intolerance from that time which means hes highly sensitive to sprayseven a bit of Raid will make him sick.

Murrays background is a Lincoln degree and then work as an auctioneer for Turners & Growers. Hes president of the Northland Vege Growers.

Murray knows both sides of the grower/supplier story and says he saw things during his time at Turners that were if not illegal they were highly suspect. He says most of it was built around screwing the growers and getting big buck for marketers and the supermarkets.

He gave the example of tomatoes. He the grower was paid $1.20 kg (effectively 0.80cents by the time commission etc taken off ) - whereas those same tomatoes were selling in the supermarket for $3.20. What that kind of pricing was doing was driving out the small growers and leaving only the really large scale ones in place. That meant there were only factory farmers left in business.

Murrays allegation about this type of supermarket behaviour is backed up by an Australian study which showed that in years 1992-2002 the price of veges had rise by 24 % but farmers were being paid 19% less.

Lettuces and some herbs are grown in a kind of outdoor raised tunnel house. The plants are on racks but under cover. The hydroponic mix is pumped through the racks.

The couple grows salad vegetables, some cucumber, tomatoes and a large chunk of herbs like basil.

Because of Murrays intolerance to agrochemicals the whole place has to be spray free. That means he chooses varieties of plants known to be resistant to certain types of bugs and diseases. They harvest young crops while they are healthy.

There are also crops Murray wont bother trying to grow because of pest and disease challenges or will at least delay growing until the disease or pest threat has gone. Theres netting around some crops to keep white fly away.

Murray uses some across the counter mixes but he supplements this with a mix he makes up himself. The basis is comfrey. He composts all the waste from the garden and then lets his chooks work that over. The compost is then spread out and Murray plants comfrey into that. He harvests comfrey believing that the plant has sucked up a lot of nutrient from the soil and put that into its leaves. The comfrey leaves are immersed in a drum for up to five weeks and the resulting tea is added to the mix that is being fed to the plants.

Because the property is spray free and the crops are covered they dont need to wash their bagged salads before sale. Nicky and two other women mix and pack salads in the old dairy shed on the farm (which now has a commercial grade kitchen license).

They sell a heap of salad mixes at the Saturday morning market.

She says that supermarket salads are put through a chlorine wash that is ten times stronger than the standard swimming pool.

Nicky also makes coriander and basil pesto.