Berry good business
Within a year of buying a strawberry farm, a Blenheim family has mastered the art of hydroponics to produce a crop of sweet, succulent fruit.
Buying a hydroponic strawberry farm wasn’t on Hannah Thomas and Clayton Morgan’s post-university agenda. But when Clayton’s father, Geoff, spotted one for sale near his Blenheim home, he immediately told the couple. Ten days later, the trio, along with Clayton’s mother, Annette, were the proud owners of Hedgerows. “Geoff knew I had a soft spot for strawberries,” laughs Hannah. (She eats them with ice cream for breakfast each year on her birthday and themed her 21st party around the berry.)
Having just completed geology and photography degrees in Wellington, Hannah and Clayton returned to Blenheim, where both of their families are based, to run the farm. First up was a new logo, which the couple designed themselves – a chance to focus on something familiar before diving head-first into the unknowns of strawberry farming. “We’re passionate about design,” says Clayton. “Basically, design is our life,” Hannah agrees. The pair, who met at high school, complement each other brilliantly and spend the day cracking jokes.
It hasn’t all been a frolic through the strawberry fields, though. The family weren’t aware how great a challenge they were taking on, hydroponics being more technical than they realised. The only farming experience came from Geoff’s upbringing in Canterbury’s Hundalee Hills. While the former owner, who built the hydroponic system, taught them the basics, they had to undertake a lot of their own research.
“You slowly learn what is important,” says Hannah. “It’s like having 80,000 ICU babies. They can’t communicate with you so you have to think, ‘You’re looking a bit brown, you need more calcium.’”
The baby analogy is quite appropriate. The days are long and 2am wake-up calls are common – an alarm goes off if there is a disruption in the plants’ water flow or nutrient levels. After planting, the farm can’t be unattended for more than 24 hours – that lesson was reinforced when the couple relaxed their daily checks for a few days and a whole row of plants died.
Thankfully, Clayton’s parents have been around to help, along with a constant flow of backpackers. Annette, an interior designer, looks after the packing house and shop (she also designed the shop interior) from which the family sell real-fruit ice creams, berries and locally made strawberry jams and relishes. Geoff is the company’s travelling salesman, carting berries on the plane on his regular work trips to Christchurch and Wellington (he also owns and runs two construction companies) and manning the Sunday farmers’ market stall in Blenheim.
Hannah and Clayton live on site, with two cats which trail them like dogs, a few dozen bumblebees which help to pollinate the strawberry flowers, a collection of vintage bikes and a 1961 Morris Minor.
It’s in this blue Morrie – Hannah’s treat to herself this year – that I’m collected from the airport. “Sorry, we just have to pick up some bees,” she tells me as we drive through the vineyards towards town.
Hedgerows’ strawberry season runs from September to January. The hydroponic method means the farm produces berries earlier than most places, and they are sweeter and juicier, too.
The family spent six months preparing for their first season, rigorously cleaning growing houses – sterility is integral to hydroponics – planting and tending strawberries, and ensuring the nutrients being fed through the watering system were at the right levels. Six weeks of cleaning (“It’s like going to the gym every day,” says Clayton) were followed by five weeks of planting. “That was start at sunrise, finish at sunset; we just used all the daylight that we could,” says Hannah.
They’ve been happy to find the community so supportive. “There’s so much diversity in New Zealand now, it’s amazing. We’re getting a bit more like Europe,” says Annette, of the appreciation for small producers.
“I think our generation is pulling back from that mass consumerism,” adds Hannah.
Growing berries has taught her more about the food industry. “We’re not growing anything significant, but the amount of effort that goes into food production… You go to the supermarket, you buy your food, you don’t realise that there’s someone working 18-hour days just to make sure it’s beautiful.”
Six or seven local restaurants – plus the likes of Floriditas in Wellington – incorporate Hedgerows berries into delicious desserts, drinks and dishes. Blenheim’s Arbour, an award-winning, fine-dining restaurant with a focus on local produce, whips up a strawberry daiquiri and a selection of desserts for us to try. Co-owner and head chef Bradley Hornby says Hedgerows strawberries are the best he’s worked with, in New Zealand and internationally.
“The berries get what they want, when they want it. That’s why they taste so good,” says Hannah, referring to the ‘nutrient film technique’, which sees nutrient-boosted water flowing constantly to the plants’ roots.
This approach, and the fact that water is circulated for three weeks, means less wastage than a regular strawberry farm – which is important in a dry region like Blenheim. The couple also use organic sprays when possible.
Clayton spends hours in the pump shed, recording nutrient levels and ensuring everything is running smoothly. It’s not unlike his years spent in a photographic dark room – he has installed one of those on the property, too; not that there has been much time for photography. Hannah’s sewing machine isn’t unpacked yet either (in the past, she has dabbled in wedding-dress design at her mother’s bridal studio).
They are relishing the endless supply of berries, though – a bonus of the lifestyle. It’s a highlight for me, too, and I manage to eat enough in one day to get me through the summer. I cram a few more in my bag for the road; the only telltale sign is the sweet scent wafting from my hand luggage on the plane.
Words by: Fiona Ralph.
Photography by: Daniel Allen.
Dessert photograph by: Liz Buttimore.