To market, to market to buy . . .

SONIA O'REGAN
Last updated 14:30 18/06/2014
farmers market

PRODUCE: Clockwise from top left, pumpkins, daikon and Violet Sicilian cauliflower ready for harvest.

farmers market
HERE TO HELP: Sophie Dawson serves a customer at the Marlborough Farmers’ Market.

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Vegetables underpin a booming business for the Dawson family, who grow produce for the Farmers' Market from late summer through to winter, writes Sonia O'Regan .

The success of the Dawson family's vegetable gardening hobby is good news for those who like their greens locally grown.

Pumpkins, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, corn, beetroot and silver beet are among the more familiar vegetables they grow in fields leased on the edge of Blenheim. Kohlrabi, daikon and celeriac are among the more unusual.

Their "Spudz N Greens" stall at the Marlborough Farmers' Market is teeming with produce from late summer through the winter months.

The business is a hobby that has grown like topsy, resulting in permanent part-time work for Alistair and Kathryn Dawson and their daughter, Sophie, 13.

Alistair is an experienced vegetable grower. Now a vineyard manager for Ormond Nurseries, he grew commercial arable crops over about 121 hectares back in the days before grapes grew to prominence in Marlborough.

"There was lots of land to lease in those days," he says.

He had moved on and was working for a seed company when one of its contract growers walked away from their lease on a field and Alistair decided to pick up the lease and plant pumpkins as a hobby.

"Then we started growing potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, it just grew from there," he says.

They have been regulars at the farmers' market for 10 years and also supply some vegetables to Benge and Co Green Grocers and some Marlborough cafes. They grow vegetables over 2ha.

"We've got bigger and bigger. We just keep changing our product lines, often at the request of customers," Alistair says.

He is happy to experiment to see if different crops will thrive in Marlborough.

"We try to grow things that work for us, that we can grow easily and that produce economic returns."

He had a go at growing okra, but found the Marlborough days (and nights for that matter) were too cool for the tropical and subtropical mallow family member to flourish on a commercial scale.

However, daikon, a large white radish popular in Japan, and celeriac, a particularly knobbly root vegetable also called turnip-rooted celery or knob celery, have both performed well.

The Dawsons enjoy roasting celeriac like a parsnip or using it to make soup.

The tasselled purple mini footballs that are kohlrabi also grow well in Marlborough. Also known as German turnip or turnip cabbage, kohlrabi can be eaten raw, roasted, pureed or made into soup.

You are unlikely to see kohlrabi in the supermarket, and it's not very familiar to many Kiwis, but Eastern Europeans recognise it immediately and are happy that they can buy it at the market, Alistair says.

"They go mad for it."

Bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, is another vegetable they grew to meet their customers' tastes.

"We have changed some of the things we grow for the different ethnic groups in Marlborough. We're quite diverse now."

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Kale, long grown for stock feed, has become increasingly popular among health-conscious customers possibly because it is the "leafy green of the moment", popping up in magazine recipes and books about health and nutrition.

Popular nutritionist Dr Libby Weaver says on bite.co.nz that kale "packs a mighty nutritional punch".

It is a good source of vitamin A, C and K and full of antioxidants. She recommends putting it in pesto, soups, stir-fries or frittatas, sneaking it into juices, or baking it in the oven with coconut oil to make kale chips.

Alistair grows cavolo nero, red russian and bore kale, and says it sells really well, which is handy as he doesn't actually eat it himself.

"We're pretty traditional eaters, but it's good to grow what the customers want."

He is due to start planting garlic in the next couple of weeks, in keeping with the tradition that garlic should be planted on or around the shortest day, and potatoes within the next month.

He grows a variety of potatoes, with agria being the customers' favourite, and his new potatoes are much anticipated by customers as Christmas draws near.

Weather variations mean each season has its own success and failure stories. He has 14 different types of cauliflower growing well this year. The cumulis variety, in particular, is producing massive heads, some weighing in at 4kg.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem artichokes are smaller than last season, but still perfectly good to eat.

Alistair's advice for home gardeners is: "Love your soil."

"You've got to look after your soil. If the soil is sad you won't produce good vegetables.

"A healthy plant will actually

resist a lot of disease and pests."

He uses artificial fertilisers and fish byproducts and also returns waste cuts from crops to the soil. "All the leaves, anything we don't want gets chopped up again and recycled."

Until now, Alistair has propagated his own plants, but has decided to buy in seedlings for the coming season to free up some time and also to see if they produce better results.

Spudz N Greens is very much a family affair. Alistair brings home tubs of vegetables decorated with rich Marlborough soil on Saturday mornings.

Kathryn spends most Saturday afternoons preparing the vegetables for sale, which is no small task: washing away the dirt, trimming the leaves and packing them up for the market the next day.

Daughter Sophie is well involved too, helping to plant, pick and prepare the crops, when she's not busy with netball.

"I don't think she wants to do it for a living," says Alistair.

"But you know, you dangle some dollars, money does talk in this world."

Most Sundays you'll find Kathryn and Sophie on the stand at the market selling the produce, while Alistair is back and forth between the ute and the stall stacking up the giant cauliflower or packing paper bags of potatoes.

They enjoy chatting with their customers; sometimes sharing information about how to prepare the vegetables, but also hearing from customers about their cooking methods.

As the Farmers' Market's newly appointed volunteer co-ordinator, Alistair has the responsibility of arriving first at the A & P Showgrounds each Sunday to open the gates and make sure all the stallholders have a place to set up shop.

They enjoy the camaraderie of the market, but also enjoy an early night on Sundays after their busy weekends.

- The Marlborough Express

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