Kawatiri Peppers

July 2008
Kawatiri Peppers

In a non-traditional horticultural region a capsicum grower on the edge of Westport is supplying local and Canterbury markets with high quality capsicums.

The West Coast may sound like its always wet but it has more sunshine hours than Auckland. Richard Fairbrasss capsicums can ripen on the vine rather than artificially.

Richard grew up around Canterbury but moved to the Coast initially to manage a demonstration farm for Ag & Fish

Richard started growing capsicums by accident more than design after the

temperature-alarm system on his cucumber greenhouse failed one hot

summer 10 years ago. The cucumbers cooked, but the few capsicums he had

planted proved a lot hardier and thrived once he cut off the singed


The next season he devoted his 2000sqm hydroponic greenhouse entirely to

capsicums and was soon persuaded not to return to the more

labour-intensive cucumber crop by the economics and relative ease of

growing peppers.

The Westport operation now has at least 6000 plants under cover in two

greenhouses supplying West Coast and Canterbury markets, and a nursery

that keeps the houses stocked all year round.


Each plant gives about 5kg of fruit a season, contributing towards a

high-summer peak production of one tonne a week, most of which is

consumed in Christchurch.

Richard says the crop has flushes. Upwards of a tonne one week, followed by as little as 30 crates a few weeks later.

It may be small by industry standards, but in a non-traditional horticulture region like the West Coast it is a leading example of how the right horticulture can work commercially.

The crop is picked on Monday mornings and processed from the market from there.

Richard has a yard that supplies barkchip, coal and wood. Some of that coal goes to keeping the hothouse up to temperature.

What the Market wants

His fruit is hydroponic. He says taste, quality and freshness are the keys to good capsicum growing, and although Westport is so far away from the main markets, this is no


The freight costs of getting produce to the market are higher, but that is compensated for by the cheap coal that drives the boilers to keep the greenhouses at a constant temperature.

Fruit picked off the vine on Monday is graded, packaged and in the Christchurch produce markets that afternoon.

The same cannot be said he says - about the Australian imported fruit, which has driven down grower prices more than customer prices.

"Australian capsicums are picked green and ripened on the way here.

Also, they don't keep because they have to be fumigated before they come

into the country, and that knocks the shelf life," Fairbrass said.

Handled and stored properly, New Zealand peppers will last about three

weeks, compared to one week for the imports.

But markets are fickle things and capsicums that commanded a premium

growers 10 years or so ago have struggled to reach those prices in the early 2000s.

"It's the same for all growers. Just when you think you'll get a good price, the Australian produce hits the market to the point where it becomes marginal," Richard says.

In the Hot house

The entire Kawatiri Gardens is run on a simple system.

A light sensor on the roof measures the energy from the sunlight and that automatically regulates the amount of liquid nutrient which includes potassium nitrates, magnesium and sulphate -- that is drip-fed to the plants hydroponically.

On shorter winter days, that may reduce to five doses a day, but in high summer it

increases to about 24 doses, or 2 litres, of nutrient a day.

Each plant is rooted in a plastic bag of rotted sawdust and absorbs the

nutrients it needs while letting about 20 per cent run to waste in the


A basic computer programme regulates the in-house atmosphere to

keep the temperature at a constant 22deg during the day and 18deg at

night. It also keeps the humidity at less than 80%.

The rest is down to good old-fashioned observation.

" We keep it relatively simple and that means the staff end up doing what computers might do in other operations.

Hes a big fan of human observation over computer modelling.

"For instance, the staff might see aphids, or notice that some of the

fruit is looking yellow and lacking something, so this way we can

control it as we need to."


Richard propagates his own plants. Under-bench heating elements encourage root development and quicken the process.

The plants have just 40 weeks to complete their cycle. Seeds germinate

in seven days, are ready to bag in eight weeks, and it is 12 weeks from

planting to fruiting. An average plant will produce 40 fruit in a


This is an operation where the emphasis is on quality and not quantity.

Once plants are in the greenhouse, the first buds are removed to

encourage plant growth rather than fruit production, and even when fully

grown at 2m, the buds are regularly thinned so each fruiting truss

produces only one or two quality fruit.