Meet the Pukekohe family who have been farming veges for 70 years
Growing Asian greens and niche crops comes naturally to The Fresh Grower’s Allan Fong, whose family has been farming veges in Pukekohe since the 1940s.
Pukekohe may be renowned for its potato and onion farming, but third-generation grower Allan Fong has 500 acres in the area dedicated to Asian greens, varieties of cos, Bellaverde sweet-stemmed broccoli and countless more vibrant vegetables. His family business, The Fresh Grower, has helped popularise Asian veges in New Zealand, and Allan is passionate about developing new produce varieties to satisfy consumers and restauranteurs looking to bring texture, flavour and colour into the kitchen.
“The crux of the business is to bring niche crops to the mainstream; that’s my passion,” says Allan, whose father and grandfather started farming vegetables on the same site around 70 years ago when they arrived in New Zealand from China. “I get a kick out of informing the younger generations who don’t have a habit of cooking. With new varieties, it’s so easy to do.”
People can be scared of cooking with Asian greens, says Allan, and getting them to experiment with some of his “less conventional” produce – such as kale – can be a challenge. But with the trend towards fresh rather than processed foods still burgeoning, Kiwis are getting more creative in the kitchen. “You’ve got to marry it up with a really good recipe,” he says.
When he first took over the business, Allan recalls growing just one variety of cos lettuce all year round. “Now we have hundreds to select from. The market has changed,” he explains. In order to keep ahead of the curve, The Fresh Grower regularly plants trial crops to experiment with different textures and flavours.
One of the crops currently on trial is a red kale, which, if successful, may end up being supplied to companies such as My Food Bag and others in the service industry. The process of trialling is truly a labour of love, with each crop taking three years before it’s deemed viable for growing commercially, but when Allan talks about his trial plots, there’s nothing but enthusiasm for what he does.
“We like coming up with new takes on old things,” he says, speaking of some of his favourite variations, which include a baby silverbeet (“it’s really easy for wilting”), a “more edible” variety of chard, and the coriander he grows without the full stems, which sells like hotcakes thanks to the zip-lock bag packaging and generous volume.
Each week at the farm, around 100,000 plants are sown with the use of a machine, but it was only 10 years ago that the planting was done by hand, with all the crops being planted outside and placed at the mercy
of the elements, rather than grown hydroponically. The picking and processing, however, is still done by The Fresh Grower’s staff of around 50, who Allan says are like family. The longest-standing member of staff has been with the company for about 40 years.
At its core, The Fresh Grower is a family operation. Allan’s brother, Colin, runs the harvesting team, nephew Daniel helps with the growing, son Ryan helps run the pack house and cousin Andrew leases Allan the farm that housed the original crops planted by their fathers and grandfathers all those years ago. Back then, the co-operative business owned by three Fong families was called Hop Lee, which in English means “together we benefit”. It’s a mantra that Allan and the Fong family still hold dear today.
This first appeared in the June/July issue of NADIA magazine.
Photography by: Tanya Wong.