Pungent smell of success

Pungent vegetables equal profit for a Wairarapa grower.

"You go 'pwhoar' . . . people are always commenting on the pungency of the produce," said Jeremy Howden, owner of Te Manaia Organics just outside Masterton.

Like a winemaker putting a pinot noir's bouquet down to his region's unique soils and climate, Howden said his celeriac smells great because of its "terroir".

While Hastings growers might count on deep, loamy soil and Napier's on high sunshine hours, Howden's point of difference is 12 hectares of stony alluvial plains between Masterton's aerodrome and the Waingawa river.

Howden has turned Wairarapa's comparatively small number of commercial vegetable growers into a market advantage and a personal mission. "I'm trying to find out what the Wairarapa can produce . . . every district has the ability to grow vegetables; there's not some golden goose in some particular area."

Brought up on a sheep and beef farm with a large vegetable garden an hour east of Masterton, Howden learned early to love home-grown fare. This was reinforced on his OE by the "reverence" for food in countries such as France, Greece and Turkey.

After a stint angora goat farming in the late 1980s things became "hostile" for primary sector small businesses, so journalism-trained Howden took a job selling newspaper advertising; but his green fingers began to itch.

He bought a bean sprout business just as the country developed a twin infatuation with health food and world cuisine; Howden's sales doubled annually for five years.

A weekly cash crop, fixed margins and an unsaturated market built momentum for a move out of the warm sprout-house on his father's farm onto his own land.

Coloured lettuce and fennel were the first crops, followed by "just about anything other than cabbage" as the Wellington restaurant scene boomed, specialty ingredient stores did well and immigrants demanded respite from traditional Kiwi blandness.

But it was the nascent organic movement's insistence on quality and diversity that cemented Howden's market gap.

He avoided large supermarkets with their push for growers to specialise in a few, mass-produced items. Howden's customers wanted the opposite. "I have to deal with a lack of scale but it does give me the opportunity to be quick on my feet."

Importantly, the organic market is prepared to pay extra for that responsiveness and diversity. "It's not about driving the price down, it's about establishing a fair value for what you're eating."

The recipe seems to work, with turnover doubling in the last three years and full-time staff up to seven from three. Growth has prompted some concessions to scale; alongside his more specialised offerings, Howden now harvests staples such as broccoli, cauliflower, leeks and pumpkins.

Their tighter margins are supported by smaller, more profitable lines such as fragrant celeriac. A three-year rotation lets the land rest, while a 52-week cropping programme reduces exposure to bad weather.

A challenge has been maintaining quality without using chemicals; but if the proof of the vegetable is in the eating, the enthusiastic response at farmers' markets make a pretty good case for Howden's pungent produce.


$2.25: Retail price 100-gram box of alfalfa sprouts

$1.75: 250g box of mung bean sprouts

75,000: Boxes of sprouts sold annually

$3: Head of broccoli

25,000: Heads of broccoli sold annually