It’s no secret Wairarapa loves its animals. With renowned producers of paddock-to-plate beef, award-winning butchers, and a burgeoning artisan cheese industry, there’s no shortage of quality tucker in our corner of the globe. But even this carnivorous region has caught on to the phenomenon of plant-based eating – one of the most popular dietary trends of the last few years. With walnut burgers on the menu in Greytown, pea-based cheese on supermarket shelves, and a plethora of organic veggies at markets, there are plenty of options for those preferring more vegetal fare. Is it time for Wairarapa to diversify its food production, and head away from lamb shanks towards legumes and grains? Here we meet some Wairarapa growers who visualise a more healthful, resilient and eco-friendly region.

An Organic Empire

On Greytown’s main street sits the over 130-year-old Baillie House. Once home to Scottish settler James Baillie, who reportedly discovered gold in a well nearby, the heritage building houses Food Forest Organics – a treasure trove of organic and vegan products, sourced from all over New Zealand. Chia cereals, quinoa spaghetti, coconut yoghurt, and salami and smoked salmon made from dried soy, soya sauce and carrot, to name but a few.

Planting a foodie future

Customers hang out on the back lawn at Food Forest Organics at lunchtime.

Though one thing the store can never seem to get hold of is Sunfed Meat’s “Chicken Free” Chicken, produced in Auckland. “It’s made from pea protein, but it tastes exactly the same,” Food Forest Organics marketing manager Maxine Yule says.

“Apparently, it sells out at the supermarkets within days”.

The store’s most popular items are probably the mozzarella and parmesan crafted from pea and maize starch in Grey Lynn, Maxine’s partner (in business and life) Chris Lester says.

“People like their cheese – that’s one thing they might find hard to give up. So, they’re happy there are tasty alternatives.”

Food Forest Organics is the “shop front” for Cameron Family Farms – an organic arable operation east of Greytown, spearheaded by Hollywood heavyweight and vegan convert James Cameron. Under the leadership of farm manager Chris, the farm produces linseed and industrial hemp as its main earners, but has also started growing walnuts, flaxseeds and lavender, and producing small batches of honey. Plus it has a 40 hectare block for planting vegetables, to appear fresh on the shop shelves every morning.

Planting a foodie future

Chris Lester, farm manager at Cameron Family Farms.

Cameron launched both the farm and shop to promote plant-based food in Wairarapa – as well as the Food Forest Organics eatery, which serves lunches cooked fresh with the store’s daily produce.

Far from experiencing backlash in an area for which pastoral farming contributes to a fair chunk of its economy, the store has gained a loyal customer base – happy to sample a lentil curry, or “Not Meat” Burger. Clear favourites are the chickpea, walnut, and black bean and beetroot patties.

“We were very pleasantly surprised,” Maxine says. “We’ve had people tell us they come to Greytown just to have lunch here – it’s at the top of their list of cafes.”

Clean and Green?

A sharper environmental conscience is one of the main drivers behind the popularity of plant-based food, Chris says.

For several decades, there have been mounting concerns about the effect of pastoral agriculture on New Zealand’s supposed “clean, green” environment. According to Ministry for the Environment data, pastoral farming has intensified since the early 1890s – with cattle numbers and weight increasing, while pastoral land availability has decreased. This results in

“intensive agriculture”; farming with higher levels of output per unit of agricultural land area. This style of farming has since been linked to river contamination, due to animal faecal matter and commercial fertilisers, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris, who was “a conventional farmer for many years”, says plant-based food production presents an ideal opportunity for Wairarapa – home to 3 per cent of New Zealand beef cattle, and almost 4 per cent of its dairy herd – to “try something new”.

Planting a foodie future

Chris Lester, farm manager at Cameron Family Farms and colleagues.

“New Zealand cannot keep on intensifying livestock farming at the expense of the environment,” he says.

“We need to recognise the impact on our soil health. You’ve got all these heavy animals grazing, all packed together per square metre on a small piece of land, and it degrades the soil.

It’s depleted of its nutrients, and the beneficial organic material.” Such degradation renders land useless for further growth,

and increased fertiliser use. Plus, degraded soil is more prone to flooding, resulting in the distribution of sediments, pesticides and nitrates into waterways via runoff. Which, say scientists, is catastrophic for aquatic life.

“Also, resistance to [pesticides] is well recognised – they’re not working anymore,” Chris adds.

In good news, both farmers and consumers want to be part of the solution. “I mix a lot with farmers – they are aware of the environmental parameters around livestock farming. I think many farmers have been forced into intensification because of economic demand. Right now, they’re looking at remedies, or are considering alternative practices.

“Our customers are more aware of what they’re consuming – they want to be part of creating a cleaner environmental footprint.” Larger farming groups, such as Federated Farmers, have also expressed commitment to more environmentally friendly farming practices – with the group’s national president pledging earlier this year to help make all New Zealand rivers swimmable. Wairarapa Federated Farmers president Jamie Falloon has previously stated farmers have been working on solutions, such as on-land discharge, planting in riparian areas, and fencing off waterwaystostock.

Chris believes there is still a place for traditional livestock farming in Wairarapa. However, the region is “well placed” to expand its arable industry. And, as crop farming is typically labour intensive, it could create more employment opportunities.

“We have significant areas of arable land and a lack of urban sprawl. Wairarapa is also hugely diverse in its soil types, climate and topography, so we could potentially grow several types of crops.”

Keep The Doctor Away

Chris says consumers are also waking up to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, thanks to a wealth of media. He became inspired to adopt a greener diet by The China Study, penned by US biochemist T. Colin Campbell.

The book, which convinced Bill Clinton to try veganism, examines the relationship between animal products and chronic illness, and concludes that a plant-based diet can both prevent and reverse a number of ailments. The study has also inspired documentary films such as Vegucated and Forks Over Knives. Such films, Chris says, have piqued local curiosity.

“Not all our customers are strictly vegan, but they recognise the health benefits of having a meat-free meal,” he says.

“It’s another option for them – they’re adding variety. They realise they can order a curry from down the road, or they can have a lentil burger,” Maxine adds.

“You only need to look at a cafe menu, and see all the vegan options on offer, to see it’s not a passing fad.”

Down the road on the Tauherenikau Plains, the van Steensel family also enjoys a clean bill of health.  “We’ve raised four kids here,” patriarch Frank van Steensel says. “And they wouldn’t be able to tell you any of the doctors’ names in town.”

“Although we’re not that extreme – we have nutella in the pantry,” wife Josje Neerincx quips.

Dutch imports Frank and Josje are the brains behind Wairarapa Eco Farms – organic vege growers extraordinaire. The couple arrived in Wairarapa in 1996, where they bought a dry, stony patch of land, built a straw bale home, and planted some olive trees.

Planting a foodie future

Wairarapa Eco Farms’ Frank van Steensel and Josje Neerincx.

Nowadays, their land – which has grown to include a large market garden east of Masterton – is bursting with greens; from the humble tomato, broccoli and new potato, to the more “exotic” kale (a nutty-tasting cabbage), Vietnamese coriander, and mizuna (a mustard-flavoured salad green). Unsurprisingly, the Eco Farms crew have a diet rich in leafy produce – and are “sharing the love” with the community via the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. CSA schemes, originally pioneered in the US, allow consumers to buy a share into a local farm and, in return, receive a box of fresh, seasonal produce directly from the farm for each week of the growing season.

Through the CSA, Wairarapa Eco Farms provides vegetables to over 130 families in the Wellington region – though Frank and Josje say interest in Wairarapa has “tripled” over the past year.
“I think people are more concerned about what 
they’re feeding their kids,” Frank says.

“They want to know who’s growing their food, they want to be healthy, and to help stimulate the economy.” Frank and Josje believe New Zealanders eat more than their fair share of meat. Excessive consumption of animal protein can raise the body’s acid levels, while vegetables provide an alkaline balance. The bulk of an ideal diet, they advise, should come from plants.

Luckily, “the perception of vegetables is changing”, Josje says.
“They are becoming more trendy throughout the world, more 
acceptable.

“You’ve got these TV shows and Youtube channels on vegetables. There are more cookbooks dedicated to vegetables – chefs are getting a lot more adventurous.

“And taste-buds are changing and evolving”. Josje also attributes the surge in interest down to people having neither the time nor space, particularly due to the increase in subdivisions, for their own garden.

“And it gets people buying local. I’d hope people see us as not just these silly organic dudes, but with something to offer.”

Opening The Gates

Back towards Greytown, Lisa Birrell has her own ideas for adding some coins to Wairarapa’s back pocket – in the form of farm tourism.

Lisa and her family bought olive orchard Fantail Grove on Bidwills Cutting Road last year, and have converted the business into an organic operation.

Planting a foodie future

Lisa Birrell, at Fantail Grove.

More recently, she has been expanding the business to include tours of the grove – which also produces hazelnuts and table grapes – and has set up a “Farm Shop” for Fantail Grove produce on site.

The tours have so far been an opportunity for customers to look behind the scenes of an eco-friendly olive grove – lime in the soil to ward off peacock spot, liquid compost for fertiliser, and a flock of Romneys as “grass trimmers”.

The Birrells are adding to their “brood”, planting figs, horseradish, garlic, and wasabi – the latter to be planted in the “peat-y” back garden, as it usually grows in a stream bed.
If Wairarapa were to expand its plant-based food production industry, Lisa says, farm tourism – “huge” in her native UK – could 
be a viable earner.

“I’ve noticed there’s been a wave of people who are keen to know where their food comes from, and what goes into it,” Lisa says. “People want to form that connection with what they’re buying – to connect with where, for example, their olives and honey were produced, and get to know and form a relationship with the growers and producers. That way, the product they’re eating means more.”

Challenging Times

Lisa agrees Wairarapa has the potential, weather and available land for a successful plant-based industry – and says the influx of new arrivals settling in the region could add their skills to the mix.

However, cautions fellow organic horticulturalist Anne Opie, growing a variety of crops requires careful research and planning, given the challenges of Wairarapa’s micro climate and different soil types.

For example, Anne’s Woodside Road olive and artichoke orchard lies on an old bed of the Waiohine River – so, when starting out, it took a “great deal of exertion” to clear rocks from the artichoke beds. While alluvial soil lends itself well to certain crops, there are concerns much of the region’s prime growing land may disappear, thanks to the current construction boom.

“And once that land goes, there’s no getting it back,” Anne says. A further challenge, adds Chris Lester, is a lack of suitable infrastructure to support a large-scale arable industry in Wairarapa, such as seed dressing, drying and storage facilities. Plus, Anne warns, changing weather conditions mean some crops won’t manage well in new and uncertain conditions, resulting in crop losses. Also, pesticide residue in some areas may contribute to profit losses because some vegetable crops absorb the carcinogen DDT, which remains in some soils.

New growers “have to know what they’re doing”, she says. “You need an intimate knowledge of your property and what’s going to grow in its soil.

“If you’re going for large-scale, you’ll need to graduate to a mechanical rake, or you’ll need a chainsaw to manage your shelter belts, which can get expensive. If you’re selling, you need to be aware of standards in the Food Act. Cost structures can be radically changed by new government or industry requirements.

“It’s possible, but it’s hard work.”

A Watershed Project

Carterton farmer Karen Williams knows well the ups and downs of crop growing.

On their property at Ahiaruhe Farm, Karen and husband Mick have been growing wheat, barley, ryegrass and red clover – and, until recently, peas. When pea weevils were discovered in Wairarapa last year, she was one of the growers appointed as the arable representative on the Ministry for Primary Industries’ governance group – which recommended a two-year ban on pea production. In response, Karen formed the Wairarapa Cropping Strategy Group, to come up with alternative suggestions.

“There were some good ideas discussed – things like seed oils, hops for beer production, vegetables for juicing, ancient grains for cereals,” she says.

“This is a good time to talk about what we could do here. Wairarapa has close proximity to markets, so we have the potentialtobethefoodbowlfortherestofNewZealand.”

For a dry area like Wairarapa to reach its potential as a plant- based hub, irrigation of its arable land is necessary for producing high yields. With Wairarapa’s forecast to heat up further – NIWA’s recent climate change predictions have the region reaching the climate of Hawke’s Bay by 2040 – fresh water reliability is uncertain.

Karen is therefore supportive of Wairarapa’s proposed large- scale water management scheme – to harvest rainwater at its most plentiful, store it at two large reservoirs, and make it available to farmers and growers via pipes to the farm gate. As a result, an additional 30,000 hectares of the valley could be irrigated. A spokesperson for Water Wairarapa, the body in charge of progressing the scheme, has confirmed that, with reliable water, livestock farming could be replaced by “more plant-based food production”.

“There has been negativity – people seem to think it will be used to grow more grass, and therefore justify more cows,” Karen says.

“But irrigation isn’t just for dairy. It’s also for things like lettuces and cucumber – which we’re paying an arm and a leg for in the supermarket.”

She says a reliable water source can help create more financial security for farmers and growers – especially by way of more seed-growing contracts – which will, in turn, contribute to urban economies.

Plus, it could create more opportunities to“buy local”. “At the moment, Weetbix is produced with Australian grain. All chicken feed in the North Island is imported; 75 per cent of our milling wheat is imported. I think it would be awesome if Breadcraft and our artisan producers can use grain grown right here in Wairarapa.”

Fellow grower Anne, however, is more cautious – fearing the dams could “dry up” as they have in other parts of the country. Our best option for combating dry spells to come, she says, is trees.

“Re-planting native forests areas like the Eastern Hills, which have been cleared over the years, will help attract rain. Shelterbelts provide shade and, therefore, more moisture for plants.

“The more trees you clear, the more the opportunity gets lost.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Photography by Lucia Zanmonti