Hydroponic Lettuce

September 2011

Ian Kerr is "The Lettuce Man" growing lettuces and other salad crops in glasshouses

Ian Kerr is a hydroponic lettuce grower who supplies the Cambridge farmers market.

East Coast born Ian Kerr was farming on an atoll in the Fiji Islands group until a few years ago. He was running sheep and beef on the island – as well as starting to develop a small tourism operation. He says Fiji was an idyllic lifestyle although there were challenges. He says the island could be dry for up to 9 months – so water storage was important .

He adds that the sheep were interesting – a self shedding variety developed in Australia that looked like a sheep but behaved like a goat.

A few years back he decided he should move back to NZ for the sake of his childrens’ education and bought a 25 ha scrubby block near Karapiro and starting clearing it. Around half the property is now in grass and the rest is slowly being planted back into native trees.

Although he’s known locally as the lettuce man, Ian grows a number of different salad and vegetable crops on his property – herbs, bok choy etc.

He got underway not long after settling on the block. He came across some second-hand frames and started putting them up and soon saw he had enough to start some kind of commercial operation. He visited Murray Burns in Dargaville, and picked his brains on how to run the business for a local market.

Although he’s not done this kind of operation before he’s certainly learnt to be self sufficient after 15 years of living in Fiji.

The business grows about 10,000 units. Although many growers buy in seedlings Ian prefers to grow his from seed. The crop is all spray free – which is a system he likes. The nutrient is the basic hydroponic system although Ian is keen to develop his own brew.

Ian is it – in terms of labour.

Around 2/3rds of Ian’s electricity needs are met by wind and water power. He needs power for the tunnel houses and also to pump the nutrient through the hydroponic system. He says he’s working on becoming fully independent of the grid.

He also needs heat to supply lettuces year round and some winters he says it can be tough to keep them going.

Ian loves the market for the reasons all the others we’ve talked to do – direct contact with consumers and getting feedback from them. He can test new or unique varieties on them – see if they like it ( eg Purple Basil ). He says the community of growers at the market is really strong. There’s an informal bartering system so he doesn’t need to go to the supermarket for produce – he just swaps his stuff for other growers’ produce.

Because of the proximity to Lake Karapiro Ian has developed a niche for accommodation for sports teams that come to the lake for training. They’re usually on a tight budget and Ian’s got space for them to stay.

He also hosts 4WD training and certification courses. He says he’s blown away by the amount of bureaucracy tied up with starting any kind of tourism business .