A large-scale operation grows vegetables in Canterbury.
Family-owned vegetable grower Oakley’s Premium Fresh Vegetables has been recognised for its light environmental touch, in the paddock and packhouse. Robin and Shirleen Oakley, fifth-generation owners of the company, grow potatoes, broccoli, beetroot, and pumpkin across 450ha of owned and leased land in Southbridge on the Canterbury Plains. The Oakley family have been growing crops in the area for over 150 years. The flat land, Waimakariri silt loam soils, and temperate climate of the region make excellent growing conditions.
Oakley’s products are washed, graded and packed on site, and their vegetables are available year-round (other than pumpkin, which is seasonally available from April-November) at most major supermarkets in the South Island and in parts of the North Island.
In 2022 the company won the Horticulture New Zealand Environmental Award. Entering the competition helped give Oakley’s a profile with its customers, including its major outlet, Foodstuffs South Island. It also helps raise awareness of the Oakley’s brand on the shop floor, Robin says. “I think they’re all looking and taking notice regarding your business. I think people are more inquisitive about where their food comes from,” he says.
Several factors were instrumental in achieving this recognition from industry. After a close look at their power usage on its Southbridge post-harvest packhouse site, 564 solar panels were installed in April 2022. The 220 kw solar array is one of the largest installations of its type in the South Island and the 390-watt panels will account for about 40% of the site’s annual energy demands.
Oakley’s is also taking considerable steps to reduce, monitor and manage greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen leaching and improve soil quality, through initiatives such as the Sustainable Vegetables System project.
Oakley’s careful crop rotation also helps improve soil structure and fertility and minimises build-up of pathogens and pests. As part of a comprehensive precision agriculture programme, the soil is tested before, during, and after crops have gone through and moisture probes help accurately monitor water levels so they can better predict what is needed.
Paddocks are e-mapped to determine where there are variances that might affect crop nutrition. Regular plant testing also takes place and fertiliser applications are split throughout the plant life cycle to minimise leaching and increase yield. Cover cropping between rotations helps soak up excess nitrogen and Oakley’s have significantly changed their cultivation practices, aiming to support good soil structure and health.
Everything is recorded in a database, providing valuable information to help achieve reliable outcomes from their crops while also protecting their soils.
The family are also paying attention to agricultural greenhouse gas numbers and have a written plan for reducing them. The main agricultural greenhouse gas for the business is nitrous oxide, driven by the amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied to the crops. There’s also a small amount of carbon dioxide associated with this fertiliser use and a very small amount of methane, emitted by a neighbour’s sheep brought in to graze between certain crop rotations.
Robin says the complexity of food production isn’t always evident to shoppers. For example, the weather often has a major bearing on supply and demand, as it did throughout the summer of 2021/2022, for instance. “If we’d had more normal weather, we’d have had more plentiful supply overall and growers would have probably been losing a lot of money, to be fair. The ones who haven’t been affected by the weather and had the harvest volumes that they normally have…they’ll be doing it tough.”
The cost of production is acute now and growers must recover those costs as best they can, Robin says. “Wages are one of our biggest expenses. You get people who say ‘Well, if you paid more money, you’d get people to stick around’. But then, if you pay more money, we’ve got to charge more for the food.” The trade-offs required could be the difference between broccoli at $2.99 or $3.99.
The more people understand supply and demand factors, the better, Robin says. “That’s why I think it’s good to have a bit of a profile and to inform people about their food is coming from, so if they’ve got to pay a higher price at times, they’ve got a bit of understanding about why that is.”