Thursday mornings are manic for Annie Newman. She's sorting fruit and veges, weighing them, distributing the produce between banana boxes and arranging for couriers to head north and south.
Each week her store delivers organic food boxes to householders from Opunake in the south to Brixton in the north. It's the only organic store that does it locally.
"I do feel like a bit of a headless chook," she jokes, having taken over the store just 10 weeks ago. People pay from $25 for a baby box and up to $50 for a family box. Fruit and veges are mixed in the one box, although it's possible to get just fruit or just vege boxes. There are courier charges on top of that: $4-$5 for most areas or $8 for a rural delivery.
Newman says most customers are regular and numbers are stable, but she'd like to grow that side of the business.
"I think there's potential for it to grow huge, because I have not done much in the way of advertising."
Increasing petrol costs and a subsequent rise in courier charges haven't put people off.
"The New Plymouth market is growing. This morning I had a woman phone about the deliveries. It's more expensive, [than non-organic] but then again I have noticed some of my produce is on a par or cheaper than vege supermarket organic food."
She's conscious that she needs to be competitive. "So people come here and buy products from me rather than go to town".
"You have to keep the prices down. I know I'm not going to become a millionaire, but that's not what it is about. It's about a lifestyle and being able to offer a service where everyone can have organic produce, wherever they live."
She sources a lot of her fresh stock from Chantal Organic Wholesalers in Napier. The New Zealand company, with its origins as a food co-op established in the 1970s, distributes up and down the country to stores and supermarkets. Newman also stocks Ceres products, another big New Zealand-owned certified organic distributor, as well as having local suppliers.
Her aim is to grow the food box deliveries as well as her own band of Taranaki suppliers. In fact, that's what prompted her to buy Seed Organics. The owner of 1.6 hectares of land in Ahu Ahu Rd, north of Oakura, she wandered into the store one day with her grandson. The then owner Andy Colins had recently bought it from the previous owners (they set up the food delivery side of the business). Newman and Colins were chatting about the premises next door, a shop called Polly's Hut, which was on the market.
"Out of the blue I said to him 'are you interested in selling' and he said no."
A short time later they were back in contact. Was she still interested in buying, he wondered? In August, Newman a retail virgin who had to embark on much form filling as a new business owner in the organic world, took over.
For a time the food delivery side of the business had lapsed and she was keen to resume it.
Newman studied as a nurse through Witt but the illness and subsequent deaths of her father and mother impacted on her training. She wasn't able to finish part of the course, graduating instead as a healthcare assistant and working at Taranaki Base Hospital for three and a half years. She's also a mother of four.
"Food has always been very important to me and making it from fresh and getting away from processed food . . . that's what drives me."
Looking after your body, your skin, what you eat, the environment people live in - Newman talks passionately about all these things. She's just as likely to hand out recipes for home-made baby wipes (use witch-hazel and rosewater) and sell you organic surfboard wax, as she is to provide pickles and preserves made from her produce. The Okato store is a mini grocery store with a range of dry and tinned goods, cleaning products, and healthcare - even a rack of second-hand clothing.
At home in Ahu Ahu Rd, she grows fruit trees and veges including kale, sweetcorn, zucchini, capsicums and bok choy. Seeds for her scarlet runner beans were sourced from her father. She recalls him growing them when she was a child.
"With the help of my sister and two of my sons, I'm going to develop it so I can produce what I need for our vege boxes. I'd like a lot of it to come from my land and from locally grown produce."
Sue Oldfield, a mother and New Plymouth GP, has been ordering food boxes from Seed Organics, each week, for about three years. Eating food in season and buying in a way that cuts down on packaging is important to this Oakura family. The fruit and veg come in a brown box, with the boxes reused each week.
It's handy to get it delivered and there's more incentive to eat it, says Oldfield.
"The fact it's seasonal means it has not been sitting on a shelf, so it's fresh and more nutritious." A specialist in nutritional medicine, she says it's healthier to eat food in season - no tomatoes or strawberries in winter for example.
"What happens in supermarkets is most of them pick produce early, it isn't ripe and it's left in cold stores before being put on shelves."
Eating what's in season also forces households to vary what they eat.
"We'll have different things in there that you might not get in the supermarket, like chokos. I like that because it means you try different recipes and other food. Some people might find that hard because it's outside their comfort zone of carrots and broccoli, but it means you get a wide variety of taste and nutrition."
Oldfield's family of five spends $70 on their food box. They order a large fruit box as well as a small or medium lot of vegetables. They also have their own garden. In addition they're part of a co- operative of other families who buy dry goods in bulk from wholesalers like Chantal Wholesalers.
In Opunake, Sue Pegrume's family of four also buys weekly food boxes and has done so for at least three years. She and a girlfriend take turns to drive to Okato to collect the goods.
Buying local and New Zealand-produced goods is important, says Pegrume.
"When you live in a small community you like to support local businesses. But also, we eat organically as much as possible."
A stint living in the United States convinced her of the need to eat pesticide-free food grown on a small scale.
"Over there you see what happens to the land when it's used for mass food production." She used to grow a lot of her own food, but now, as a swim school instructor, part-time maths teacher and mother of two, her time is more limited. Many of the family's other groceries come from Opunake's Four Square store or from Seed Organics. Steering clear of a vast supermarket ensures the family doesn't overspend or succumb to temptation, she says.
"I struggle in a supermarket because there are so many choices . . . and there's much more temptation. Where we buy is more basic and you only get what you need. I think it keeps us a lot healthier."
The size of the family's fruit and veg box varies and depends on her primary school kids fluctuating tastes. Last week apples, mandarins, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, kumara, pumpkin and bananas were included. "I really like the idea of buying in season and having a big variety of food from different colours, year round."
In a fortnight Sarah Foy will profile groups of households who are buying organic food co-operatively. If you belong to a co-operative, want to tell your story or want details of how to get into a co-operative email email@example.com.
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