Organic Vegetable Production at Willowmere

April 2014

A high-tech mixed cropping and livestock organic business

Organic farmer, Kelvin Hicks, runs a high-tech mixed cropping business on a 200 ha property at Hororata, in Canterbury.

The farm was bought by Kelvin’s parents John and Trish back in 1991, although the interest in organics goes back well before that.

Kelvin grew up in Australia where the Hicks family had settled.  They ran an organic dairy goat operation there and milked full time on that farm.  Dairy goats started because Kelvin as a youngster was allergic to cow’s milk.

When the family moved back to NZ they were committed to continuing on with organics. Kelvin originally studied engineering but moved into farming in the 1990s.

Willowmere grows a range of organic crops for the organic consumer, both for fresh and processing.   The family own 120 ha and lease another 80 ha nearby.

Throughout the year they’ll grow 40ha of green-leaf barley to be made into a health supplement, 10ha of carrots and 12ha of potatoes and onions.  Customers include Watties and Pitango, an organic ready-made meal company.

Alongside the crops are 700 ewes and 120 replacement hoggets with 40 cattle run under organic principles.

Kelvin and his parents use the latest GPS technology to plant their crops.  The idea is to look after the soils and reduce compaction.   Kelvin says cultivation drilling and inter-row cultivation is all done with GPS.  He says it cuts fuel consumption by 10%. 

The property was originally a sheep farm.  Kelvin says farming organically in general  means being proactive and thinking of potential problems before they arise.

BioGro certification restricts what growers can use in terms of fertilizer.  Kelvin uses some seaweed fertilizer and has used biologically activated phosphates.

They grow carrots, potatoes and onions and they’ve also grown beans and pumpkins as the market demands it.  Kelvin says they don’t grow any more than they can sell.

Kelvin says pesticides are avoided by rotating crops – carrots don’t return to the same paddock for upwards of five years.  John Hicks says there’s a lot of traffic on a carrot crop so they need a good break after harvesting.

After root crops the Hicks grow lupins as a green manure crop and cultivate them into the soil to add N.  They also grow greenleaf barley.  This crop is dried and milled as a health food supplement.

The Hicks grow companion crops to attract in predator insects.  He says people would be staggered at the amount of herbicides used in some conventional crops.

At Willowmere in crops like carrots, weeds have to be controlled by hand.  In the past the family did this backbreaking work themselves but these days they use contractors.

In the early stages of establishing a crop they try and keep a sterile seed bed and not let weeds get started.  Getting ready to establish a crop can be a 2 year process.

In conventional potato crops the TPP psyllid has wreaked havoc on the integrated pest management systems those farmers were using.  Kelvin can’t use the insecticide sprays these farmers are using so as a consequence he’s very open to new biological tools.

In March last year the ladybird trial at Lincoln University was rolled out as a field trial at Willowmere.  The southern ladybird was originally introduced as a biological control for a pest in eucalyptus trees in Rotorua.  A research student trialled the ladybird in the lab and it was shown to consume large numbers of psyllids.

The sheep are a Wiltshire and Coopworth cross, providing hardy ewes and lambs with good growth rates, says Kelvin.  Wiltshires are known to handle the organic system and have a reputation for parasite resistance.

Lambing is at 140 per cent. Organic lamb and other sheepmeat is processed by Alliance. The meat gets a premium in Britain.

The stock play their part in returning dung and urine to the soil to help the organic system, says Kelvin.  The stocking rate isn’t as high, but the whole system works together. Kelvin says they have a high-value root crop and a cereal and then they go back to a pasture phase for five years, which is where the animals come in – to restore the soil and build fertility.

Kelvin has managed to run the farm at Willowmere without irrigation, but he is open to putting it in, particularly with the large Central Plains Water Scheme proposal due to bring new water on tap.