Maori cropping support

April 2008
A group of scientists has been working with growers on the East Coast to help them develop appropriate strategies for small-scale organic vegetable production and marketing.

Starting in 2003 a series of hui identified key issues facing growers and led to on-farm organic fertilizer trials and a programme of workshops and field days.

An extended period of personal interaction was required to build the necessary level of trust and the project has now successfully integrated local knowledge and experience with crop science, and passed on the results to growers. Improved yields of sweet corn, kumara, melons, Maori potatoes, popcorn and other crops have been achieved are now being sold to advantage.

The participatory approach by scientists was essential to the success of the project and could serve as a model for future activities of this type.

In a separate project, Crop and Food Research has produced virus-free Maori potatoes that produce much better yields. Hanui Laurence is the first grower to trial these vegetables on a larger scale.

Much of the land on the East Coast between Gisborne and Hicks Bay has low fertility and has been used either for extensive grazing or forestry. With the movement of people back onto their lands there is the opportunity to develop small holdings for horticulture. The growers group East Coast Organic Producers (ECOP) identified that intensive organic vegetable production was a promising option that would give price premiums and would suit the preference of local growers to work with nature. However, many lacked the necessary equipment, knowledge of production methods and marketing skills to achieve a profitable enterprise.

In 2003 a FoRST funded project was started to help growers. Scientists from Crop & Food Research and AgResearch along with an extension specialist from Auckland University made contact with growers through ECOP. Dr Huub Kerckhoffs, a CFR plant biologist is the projects science supervisor.

The East Coast Organic Producers, mainly Maori with small blocks and gardens, had realised that there was land available and there was the opportunity for their people to make money. However, because they were so far away from anywhere if they did anything it had to be organic. We teamed up with these people and that was how we started, crop scientists and growers together, says Huub.

The programme also incorporates some social science looking at the social dynamics and how can we deliver the message in a more efficient way and how science can relate better to communities or end-user groups, and weve made a lot of progress there as well.

The scientists were strangers in a close-knit community, and growers wanted any work they did to be relevant to them they didnt want to be contributing to an abstract body of knowledge that simply advanced the scientists careers.

From the experience, Huub has identified three criteria for success in this type of project:

Both sides have to be fully committed. That implies trust, which takes time to develop

A recognition of the wealth of traditional knowledge in the community about root-vegetable production. It was important to build on this knowledge rather than simply replace it with technical knowledge.

Scientists work through farmer groups that supply motivated research participants who help guide the research agenda.

He likens this type of participative research programme to a marriage scientists must engage with the people they are working with, both parties must make a long-term commitment, and there is a lot of hand-holding in the early stages.

The process involved holding a series of hui to identify key issues facing growers. From these, a work programme including both on-farm research and a schedule of training events was drawn up.


A series of workshops and field days were run on a range of topics, such as fertilisers, labelling and marketing.

Organic fertiliser trials were carried out to learn how best to lift nutrients that were limiting crop yields.

The team produced a series of growing calendars for specific crops wall charts that listed when to do what for sweet corn, kumara and Maori potato. These incorporate local knowledge, such as a moon calendar, as well as methods based on horticultural science.

Contact with supermarkets and vegetable buyers identified that customers dont necessarily want big vegetables small ones are also popular.

Links have been established with strong outlets for organic produce.

A Taste of East Coast event was held in Tolaga Bay to put growers in contact with chefs and other end users, and to give end users an insight into the products available

One Tolaga Bay grower is producing organic popcorn, and milling their organic maize, popcorn and polenta in Gisborne, and exporting to Australia.

Another grower has produced kumara wine, a sweet dessert wine.

Many crops are now being produced profitably, including sweet corn, kumara, Maori potatoes, melons and others

Says Huub: In summary, we have made huge progress. We started with a small group of Maori growers and it has taken off, with many new gardens, community leaders and these growers now coaching quite a few new growers. A lot of it is confidence building, supporting the leaders. Crop & Food Research has carved out quite a name on the East Coast for being very supportive. Its bee a big interaction of science providers with the local community with a lot of learning at both sides, but with really positive outcomes.

Maori potato project

Most Maori potatoes have poor yields thought to be caused by a high virus load accumulated over 150 years of saving tubers from home garden crops. In a programme with Tahuri Whenua (National Maori Growers Collective), Crop & Food Research has now produced virus-free cultivars that have at least doubled yields. Four varieties are now virus free, and the process of eliminating the virus took about 18 months.

They are now in the process of bulking up stocks to produce quantities for commercial plantings. This year Hanui Lawrence is one of the first with a large trial crop, and in fact Maori potatoes are her main crop.