Winter is ending, spring not yet sprung. This is the most unglamorous time of year for a market garden. But Dominique Schacherer has graciously allowed me to have a poke around her 50-acre certified organic enterprise just south of Christchurch. Dominique and her partner Logan Kerr have come a long way after starting out with a tiny farm called Spring Fed 8 or 9 years ago.
“Logan and I started on an acre out near Hororata,” Dominique tells me, “then we moved to Tai Tapu and farmed there for three years on five acres so we were quite small scale. Then four years ago we teamed up with another grower who had a farm called Rattletrack. We decided to pool our resources because we were both doing a very similar thing so that’s when we moved out here.”
Since then the business has grown and branched out into two separate operations, with Streamside Organics being Dominique and Logan’s new venture.
“The land here is really good.” Dominique gestures across a block of beautifully rich, freshly tilled earth. “We’re quite lucky to have different soil types so we can plan for the seasons, using the wetter land in the summer and drier land in the winter.
“We’ve got a wonderful crew of five full time staff and a handful of part timers. Staff are the most important thing. We wouldn’t be here without them or doing what we are doing. We really value and appreciate them, and we are lucky to have a close knit team who are really involved in Streamside Organics. Being living wage certified is just one small thing we can do for them.”
DOMINIQUE STARTS OUT AS A WWOOFER
When Dominique left school she travelled for a couple of years and then made the unusual but inspired choice to go wwoofing in the North Island. She laughs that this is not a typical route. Willing Workers on Organic Farms are usually travellers visiting foreign countries, but the experience sparked something in her that marked out her future path.
“I’ve always been interested in self-sufficiency and sustainability and that naturally led to producing good food. So that’s when Logan and I started Spring Fed.
“Logan initially trained to be a chef and he was asked to grow some heritage items for the restaurant. That really got him into it. He had a small business with a friend whose parents had some spare greenhouses so he had a bit of experience with that.”
The pair currently live in Cashmere – quite a commute. But with some help from family they have been able to purchase an adjacent block with a house that they are excited to be moving into very soon. They have already put up a greenhouse for growing seedlings and a wormery.
“We use the liquid from the worms to fertilise the seedlings. Not all our waste goes to the worms because there’s too much. Our trouble is we’ve got too much green matter and not enough dry matter.”
MOVING BEYOND ORGANIC
While the farm is certified organic, that’s not enough for Dominique.
“We do everything that is required to be organic, ticking the boxes and so on but they (certification agency) mostly just come and look at the paperwork and that’s it. Organics should never just be about ticking boxes. Organics should encompass so much more, like embracing regenerative farming techniques. It should never be ‘I’m organic and that’s enough.’
“For me the core is the soil – looking after the soil. We’re incorporating more and more cover cropping within what we do and exploring what regenerative market gardening looks like because it’s traditionally done using animals. On this scale we’re not in a position to do no till farming, but we’re trying to find more resources and information and implement what we can.
“Last season we had a whole field of beautiful sunflowers, phacelia, vetch and buckwheat and it looked amazing. Our goal is to have successions of that all over the farm.”
Traditionally, market gardeners will cycle growing crops with grazing stock but Dominique tells me they’re not sure if raising animals is a route they want to go down.
“We’re looking at a different way to manage that by incorporating a lot more cover crops with each season, half year or even a couple of years. Cover crops act like an in-situ compost whilst also improving soil structure. We want to find ways that can sustain and improve the soil long term. We don’t want to deplete it and then feel it has to be put to pasture to rest. That’s not the idea.”
COVID-19 HELPS TO EXPAND THE VEGGIE BOX BUSINESS
When Covid-19 hit, Streamside Organics already had a veggie box service running but had only a very small number of customers. With half of their turnover lost when the farmers’ markets shut down, plus the closure of restaurants and organic shops things changed dramatically overnight.
“We thought, oh my gosh, what’s going to happen? Thankfully online shopping boxes really saved us. Overall our turnover was quite consistent, even though there was a bit of a transition. Business actually went up a bit with people going crazy with veggie boxes so we were really lucky. We’ve had the added benefit of quite a few people staying on as veggie box customers. Our clientele has changed a little bit because some of the restaurants didn’t survive so we don’t supply so many restaurants now.”
Lincoln New World approached Streamside Organics, wanting to stock their produce, easing a path for them into several other supermarkets.
“They set us up, basically. They got us in there, and once you’re in one supermarket it’s a lot easier to sell to others. St Martins New World is probably one of our largest customers now.”
THE ONGOING ISSUE OF WEEDS
A wander across the fields reveals an impressive number of crops being harvested and coming on for this time of year and Dominque laughs with me at the utterly overwhelming task of weeding it all. Surely there’s some sort of industry secret to this challenge?
“We’ll let the weeds flush up and undercut them a few times just to minimise the weeding. It’s about good management. Not letting weeds seed. Because we’ve only just taken this piece of land on, there’s a lot of weed seed in the ground so we do a lot of things like stale seed beds, flame weeding, things like that.”
But basically, for now, they will weed by hand and springtime is weed season. Dominique gives me a quick demonstration, uncovering new carrot seedlings from a thick bed of weeds at lightening speed.
“These early carrots, we probably don’t really make much from them because we spend so much time weeding but it keeps the customers happy.
“It’s a big job,” she agrees, “especially when you look down the end of the row and think, ‘How am I ever going to get down there?’ Most people just put their headphones on and work away. But our crew are so optimistic. They take any job with a smile on their face, make the best out of all situations. They are wonderful.”
Long, white stripes of Mikroclima cloth stretch out along the rows. Dominique admits it is annoying to move and can blow away but is essential for keeping the birds away from new transplants and protecting against pests like aphids and white butterfly as well as from frost.
KEEPING THEMSELVES SUSTAINABLE
Dominique remembers working seven days a week from dawn till dusk when she and Logan were first starting out.
“We did that for about four or five years and it was too much. Then by joining forces with another gardener we started working 45 hour weeks which was amazing, having weekends off and that kind of thing, which was unreal. We’re going to stick to that. We want to be sustainable with ourselves too. We love our job. Being outside, knowing you’re doing some kind of good, I guess. Growing good food while still looking after the environment.”