Humble farmer's market is a foodie's paradise

EWAN SARGENT
Last updated 09:00 28/07/2017
Danielle Colvin

Biodynamic farmer Hans Schaper is a legend in vegetable growing.

Ewan Sargent
The weekly market draws vegetable buyers to Fifield Terrace every Sunday.
Danielle Colvin
Early shoppers get the best pickings at the market and popular stalls have a queue long before the official start time.
Danielle Colvin
Spring Collective can bring 750kg of vegetables in to sell each Sunday.
Danielle Colvin
Vegetables sold by their growers are the key focus of the Opawa Farmers Market.
Danielle Colvin
Geoff Barnett grows his vegetables at Motukarara.
Danielle Colvin
Buyers get vegetables that are as fresh as you can get at the market.

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Beanie-wearing Hans Schaper has abandoned his produce stall for a quick chat.

After a few minutes, a man appears and taps him on the arm. Hans turns and smiles.

The man has some of his broccoli in a bag and the hand tapping him is holding a $5 note. Hans takes it with thanks and turns his back on his stall again to finish the chat.

There's a trusting gentleness about the Opawa Farmers' Market, a calmness and a sense of a combined good purpose.

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It is a small but perfectly formed market. You can get coffee, bread, cheese, very wholesome snacks and so on, but this is really about local growers selling vegetables. If they are spray-free and organic, even biodynamic like Hans' broccoli, that's all the better.

The market is also a chance to see what in winter must be the biggest weekly gathering of wearers of shapeless hand-knitted bobbly woollen hats in Christchurch. And woollen beanies. And probably gum boots (except exempting the guy walking around within purple bare feet, but even he wears a beanie).

There's an unmistakeable eco, greenie, sustainable, ethical vibe, which fits nicely with the green surroundings. The stalls fill the U-shaped car park area of the Helios Integrative Medical Centre on Sunday mornings.

Just before the centre is an overgrown pathway with a torn sign saying: "This is a spray-free community pathway (established 2009).". About 50m past the centre is the holistic Rudolf Steiner School, and you suspect many of those woollen-hatted shoppers carrying recyclable bags come from that school community.

But it would be too easy to label the market as fringe and dismiss it. Farmers' markets are booming and the idea that vegetables should be grown and eaten without the help of toxic fertilisers and pesticides has become mainstream. Also mainstream are thoughts that food should be seasonal and you should know where your food comes from.

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All those lifestyle boxes are ticked by this little weekly market at the cul de sac end of Fifield Rd as it peters out alongside the Heathcote River.

On this Sunday, it's cold and wet, and beanie-wearing market manager Doug Hesp is changing out of a wet jacket into drier clothes in his own admin stall area.

He's a former social worker and it was his idea to launch a market in Opawa. It got a hell of a launch. Doug had spent a year getting the paperwork sorted and about the moment it was all go, the February 2011 earthquake struck.

Two weeks later, the market arrived, looking like as though it was born from the chaos, but it was coming all along.

A charter explains why it is here, but the main things aims are "to support local growers, encourage people to eat local fresh food, encourage people to grow their own food and the coming together of a community".

About 26 growers support it over the year and usually at least 15 are at each market day. When they sign on, Doug visits them to check they are growing what they sell. It's a good filter. Sometimes new "growers" who ask for a stall disappear when he tries to organise a visit.

Does he make buckets of money out of this? He laughs hollowly, wearily.

"No. It was a social enterprise before enterprises became the new 'in' thing. If we [(he and wife Lisa]) were in it for business, we would say yes more often. But we choose not to have the income of extra stalls."

It costs stallholders $35 for a morning spot. It's the cheapest price of any city market. But no-one here is making lots of money.

"I don't think you make buckets of money from growing food small- scale," Doug says.

As a rattle of rain tops up the puddles in the canvas roof, he says: "I kind of think of growing as not unlike writing or poetry or painting. It's like an artistic endeavour and people do it out of passion, not for profit. It enables people to work their own hours and do things they want to do."

Next door is Geoff and Barb Barnett's stall. A sign on the crates says they are BioGro certified organic No. 444, so one of the early ones.

They are longstanding growers and loyal buyers queue before for their stall well before the market is supposed to start. The Barnetts farm on flat paddocks at Motukarara under the gaze of flat-topped Mt Herbert. They rotate crops around six paddocks, fertilised with seaweed, and Geoff is famous for his organic onions.

On this morning, their truck was loaded with winter vegetables, including those onions, carrots, beets, spring onions, silverbeet, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, kale, pumpkins, red and white shallots. Most of the crops were harvested, washed and bundled up yesterday and stored overnight in a chiller.

There's a crispness and vitality about produce sold at the market that indicates extreme freshness, brings even before you ponder the benefits of how it has been grown.

Barb says they she and Geoff keep prices mostly the same, and in simple numbers, so it's easy to add up at the stall. The first hour is the busiest. "A steady stream of wonderful people who come whatever the weather."

She's seeing a nice change, too.

"A lot of young professional types –, you know, late 20s-early 30s, ones who are yet to have a family or are pregnant –, are coming now. I have really noticed it. They are more concerned about their footprint. Once upon a time, people thought organics were mad, tree-hugging people, but that's changed."

The business name is GC and BE Barnett. Once they thought of a proper business name, Gecko Gardens, or maybe Barnett Fare, but it never happened.

"You have to make a decision when 10 years in: Are we going to expand and get big and employing people et cetera, et cetera ... or just be at a level where it is sustainable and not stressful. Because neither of us respond particularly well to stress. And, also, I think people get greedy. What do you need? You need food, a home and something to do. Like old Norman Kirk said."

Hans Schaper is back at his stall. He's another grower with a big name in the organic community. He goes a step beyond and uses biodynamic methods – that business of treating the soil with preparations and factoring in things like such as the moon.

It's a farming theory developed by Rudolf Steiner, whose name is on the school 50m away from us.

Hans' tiny hectare of crops is at Halswell on land around his and wife Janice's Kawa Cafe. It's a post-earthquake fresh start for the 67-year-old after losing his red-zoned Avoca Valley fields.

He woke at 5am, set up the cafe with its vegetables, loaded the ute from his cooler with lettuce bags, endive lettuce, silverbeet, potatoes, yams, jerusalem artichokes, florence fennel and, coriander, then drove across the city to set up the stall.

He usually sells out quite quickly. If something remains unsold, he thinks it will probably be a few potatoes and artichokes.

"Especially in summer, I do look forward to going to the market," he says. "Otherwise, I don't have the contact with customers. That has always been important to me, to have the feedback.

"A lot of people ask if they don't know about a vegetable. They ask about that, or how to cook and what to do with them. Only a few ask about the organic side, whether we are certified. But a lot of the regulars just come, say hello, and get their vegetables."

Organic has become acceptable. When Han started 30 years ago with gate sales, some people were rude and abused him. Some religious people seemed angered by the biodynamic ideas of preparations and life forces.

"But I haven't met any people like that any more," Hans says.

Like most other growers, he tends to keep prices much the same and avoid the big supermarket fluctuations. Buyers like that.

"Supermarket shopping is quite different to our setup. You can never compete with supermarkets; you have to distinguish yourself by selling direct, the contact with customers, being very fresh and being organic."

If Hans and the Barnetts are the old organic guard, then Spring Collective is the new guard. Its stall is loaded with salad greens and vegetables from a chiller truck straight from a newish 10-hectare property in Springston.

Penny Sewell's Rattletrack Organic Farm has just merged with Dominique Schacherer and Logan Kerr's Spring Fed Organics. The ins and outs of that don't matter too much; what is interesting is it's a sign of expansion. Sales are good and confidence is up. They have even decided to look for another 10ha in the area.

Spring Collective has brought about 750kg of produce in about 25 varieties. At best, Opawa is worth about 10 per cent of business., Farmers' markets in total are about 50 per cent and the rest goes to shops, restaurants and a wholesaler. The latter supply will end up in supermarkets. When eaten, those veges might be two-weeks-old fresh, rather than a day-old fresh, as at the markets.

Freshness is a big factor in flavour, Penny says. She also says pricing is tricky. Sometimes they are cheaper and sometimes dearer than supermarkets, but they don't try to compete on something like carrots. Their carrots will definitely be more expensive.

"We hand- weed them all. They weren't sprayed with pesticides. We have to cover them," she ticks off. "It's a quality product."

Penny thinks the farmers' markets attract people who enjoy food and enjoy cooking. It's an inconvenient thing to queue early on a Sunday morning, so shoppers need to get something from it that makes it worthwhile.

By mid- morning, the flow of new buyers has slowed to a trickle. Shoppers leave with full bike baskets, wicker baskets, and bags. The party is over long before the official noon close.

A quick tidy- up and the car park becomes just that again. Until the next Sunday, when people will gather once again to buy and sell food from Canterbury fields.

- Stuff

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