Onions, spuds and mooing anaerobic digesters


By Colin Mountford-Smith

Agriculture (including horticulture) is New Zealand’s biggest sector, followed by tourism, so it seems apt that the Innovation Tour we’re on combines both.

The country’s farmers and horticulturalists have become very adept at operating without any government support, and, as a nation, free trade is their mantra.

Today we visited Balle Bros at Pukekohe, 40 minutes south of Auckland, a family-owned business specialising in growing vegetables, which are exported to China, wider south-east Asia, Australia and Europe. The company also milks 2,650 dairy cows, which Eamon Balle described as their form of anaerobic digestion!

The Balles’ key crops are potatoes (they grow 2,000 ha of New Zealand’s total production across 10,000 ha), onions (they grow 1,000 ha of the nation’s 4,000 ha) and carrots, as well as pumpkins and brassicas.

A self-deprecating man, Eamon described his family, saying that because they live a long way from anywhere, they have had to become innovative, and because the domestic market is so small (New Zealand has a population of 4.9 million, just under that of Scotland), have had to travel to find markets. This they have done with great vigour and success.

They grow in nine locations on both the North and South Islands on both owned and rented land, this spreads their risk in terms of weather and seasonality. The cropping and storage is complex, with them growing multiple crops, including 30 different varieties of potatoes and six of onions

Everything they do is focused on top quality, so they invest a lot of time in compliance. For example, to supply the UK market, they are audited by LEAF Marque and Natures’ Choice, as well as other farm assurance marques, so that they can supply the premium markets internationally.

They also select the agrochemicals they use to ensure that they meet the local active ingredient (AIs) regulations and maximum residue levels (MRLs). But like all farmers they worry a great deal about the loss of chemistry. Eamon said that the writing is on the wall for what they will lose, and said it is hugely valuable for them to work closely with businesses like BASF to find and trial new AIs that will be available in 10-15 years’ time, as well as biological options.

The dairy herd is housed 40 minutes from Pukekohe on 880 acres near Mercer, the 2,650 cows are split into three herds all milked in 60-bale rotary parlours by four staff per unit. The cows’ diet is grass on a paddock-based system, supplemented with waste onions, potatoes and other vegetables. They produce an average of 2kg of milk solids per day, in UK terms this equates to around 23 litres/day or 5,000 litres per year.

Their environmental credentials are impeccable, with all their gullies planted to indigenous shrubs and bushes, to protect water courses and encourage bird life. They have also built silt traps at the bottom of every sloping field to collect any soil that is washed downhill, spreading it back on the field it came from post-harvest.

The Balle family is totally dedicated and proud of their business, and justly so. This company epitomises what a future farming business should look like.

Col Mountford-Smith is the Farmer Focus Manager for BASF, responsible for overseeing Real Results, Farmer Focus discussion groups and the On-Track community.

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