The Curious Croppers
One of the reasons we liked the name is because when invented it, we googled it, and we found a big fat zero.
Anthony: The first thing you might notice when you look around us, is that we like to have a really weedy patch. It’s not because I’m lazy and I don’t like mowing, even though that ticks all of my boxes. Everyone says ‘why don’t you have neat mowed grass everywhere, that would look beautiful. But in my mind, this is beautiful. Because what we are trying to do is build a complicated agro-ecology around our farm.
Anthony: Once upon a time in the old days, we used to spray lots of pesticides and just to be double-y safe, we liked the land around our greenhouses covered in dirt. No grass. The theory was, any bad bugs that flew in, you killed them, and made sure there was nothing growing outside.
Angela: Hopefully nothing could come in. Whereas our thing is, we’re growing — If you go through this sort of stuff and really have a look through you find so many different insects, and so many of them are extremely beneficial. They’re great for our roses, they’re great for all of the plants we put around here, but they’re also good for our tomato plants.
Keegan: You’re trying to create something more vibrant?
Anthony: We’ve gone to the complete opposite end, and we’re saying – the more insects there are, the better. What happens is, all of the insects –nothing gets out of control – and as soon as you start applying an agro-chemical the first thing you always kill is the good guys.
Angela: And that’s even if you’re spraying organic. People say ‘oh that’s not so toxic, that’s not so harmful’, but it’s a broad spectrum, and really, it kills everything.
Keegan: You say ‘let nature do it’s thing’
Angela: Well, We’re experimenting. Haha. Talk to us in a year or so.
Anthony: It’s not all hit and miss. It’s not just a question of ‘let nature do it’s thing,’ it’s also about putting a lot of science behind it, to work out what you can do to push it in your direction. We’ve got a fairly good idea of the specific plants – that are in fact the ultimate helpers. They’re companion plants. Let’s say we’ve got a creature that’s on our side. Most of the creatures are on our side – there’s maybe two that aren’t. If there’s a creature on side, we want to feed it so it stays alive. So, if it flies in to our greenhouse, we’ve got special little flowers in there, and It keeps it alive for 42 days.
Angela: Remembering most of the good insects that live out here, they’ve got plenty to eat. Obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be living here. Once they go into the tomato plant they’re not tomato beneficial insects – but they will eat — they’re beneficial for us – but they don’t like tomato plants so there’s nothing for them to eat.
Anthony: So they don’t hang around.. They bugger off – or they die.
Angela: We’ve got certain things we’re planting. There have been certain studies done, and we’ve got these specific flowers and so on in the greenhouses, that keep these beneficial insects alive for 42 days… Without them, three days. So it’s a huge difference. And in that time you’re breeding.
Keegan: And how does that effect your yield ?
Angela: It’s not about the yield. It’s more about controlling the bad pests – so we don’t have to spray.
Keegan: So this isn’t your first growing operation?
Anthony: Once upon a time we grew for the supermarkets, 20 years ago so — but the supermarkets don’t wanna deal with little guys like us, and we don’t really have the scale .
Angela: Supermarkets have their place. If you’re growing through a supermarket you’ve gotta grow a particular way. So a supermarket tells you the price – what it costs you – they tell you the price. Every year that tends to go a bit lower, or it at least stay exactly the same . And as you know – all your standard costs go up – wages go up, petrol goes up, everything goes up. So, to grow for a supermarket now, you’ve gotta be big – so you’ve gotta have economies of scale. And each year you’ve gotta find a plant – a new seed that will have a higher yield and be faster growing and tougher. The problem with that is that something has to give and the general thing that gives is flavour.
So we grow the opposite way.
We grow the ones that are low yielding, very slow growing, very cranky… and generally have nice flavour.
Keegan: do you think the flavour profile in the tomato is almost obsolete considering the supermarkets?
Anthony: … It depends on the varieties too… We find the people who want to grow our stuff – we then agree on a price for the season, and then we stick to it. And so that way we say they’re not going to be very productive, we’re going to restrict the yield, but we are going to increase the flavour – which is what our customers want.
Angela: That is a big thing, is we do restrict the yield, we stress the plants so we reduce the water to a point where they get close to death – when you stress it, the plant puts everything into the fruit – if you give the plant a lot of water that’s a way to increase your yield, the fruit will get bigger, but not as much flavour. But also, the plant’s putting a lot of energy into just growing, and its leaves..… and there’s no value.
… We also buy some in of our beneficial insects. So that’s [Ancarsia] So they eat our white fly. And there’s about 100 in there. —-
Anthony: It’s a tiny parasitic wasp, that flies up, lays its babies on things we don’t want. And then they grow inside the bodies and then pop out like little aliens. — like the original alien movie.
Keegan: How much of your time is spent fighting bugs?
Anthony: We’re not! That’s the good thing! It’s the bugs that are doing the bug fighting – if everything’s working, we cut a few of these up, we let the grass grow outside, and we put a few of those Ancarsia out – and then, that’s all we do. See, these, little flowers? There’s a massive science behind it. So, that’s buckwheat. And also, I’m on the Board of Tomatoes NZ –
Keegan: I love that there’s a board for tomatoes.
Anthony: There has to be. Well what we do is we take a levy from all tomato growers and there’s a research budget. So when there’s a problem, we are able to address it. And have the money to solve it.
Angela: And more to the point, it’s about doing things before there’s a problem.
Anthony: So our research money that we have now, that I’m so proud of, is going to fund a phD student, at the Lincoln Bio protection Unit, putting some science behind our wild guesses.
Angela: Sometimes we can sound quite knowledgeable, but a lot of it is an educated guess.
Keegan: It’s almost like you’re reverse engineering everything.
Anthony: We say, ‘this is the solution, you find out why’
Angela: We’re working with the Lincoln bio protection unit – so, there’s a professor, with three degrees going through and seeing what we’ve got insect-wise on the farm. They do sweeps of the whole property. The other one we totally believe in, is fantails. They eat a fantastic amount of insects.
Keegan: Is everyone taking this approach to tomato growing?
Anthony: We’ve gotta demonstrate that it’s the ultimate way to do it. Everyone looks at us, and go.. “aw…”
Angela: — but, the big guys, they’re corporate… They’ve got a board of directors; we’ve got us two. As we go along, we try different things. We are small, if everything dies then that’s our problem…
Anthony: if something doesn’t work, it’s our problem. If something dies, that’s our problem.
James: And you’re limited more by yield, than demand if anything?
Keegan: I guess the demand is there.
Anthony: Yeah, we have to find people who want to buy our plants
Angela: A standard loose round supermarket tomatoes – you want 5 good tomatoes per week, every week. We might get two or three every couple of weeks.. These will genuinely be on the vine a good month longer than a standard tomato. They take a long time to grow…
Anthony: We don’t care about the insects, it’s the black birds. These greenhouses are really old. A new greenhouse will cost what, a million dollars? That’s just not doable for us. Plus, you’ve got all the council stuff… Putting in a new greenhouse is more difficult than putting in a house…
We’ve got these two greenhouses and a tunnel…
How long does it take you to set up?
Anthony: We start off small and then we add bits and pieces. 20 years ago we just didn’t have the infrastructure, and we had one supermarket that was buying all of our stuff – So that was easy.
Angela: That was when New Zealand owned all o the supermarkets…
Anthony: Yeah, and then they went to Australia.
Angela: Yeah, there was a new pest, 10 years ago – a tomato psyllid … TPP, and we were the ones that discovered it, because we didn’t really spray – and they shut us down. Because no one really knew what it was . The MPI shut us down because no one knew what it was. And it was right on NZ’s export season. It was a terrible time. Truckloads of tomatoes were being dumped… For two years the Clevedon markets, Helen from the market, she’d come and try to encourage us to sell at the Clevedon markets. And of course we were in the middle of the psyllid thing…
Angela: We were used to having nothing to do with the public, being at the market we found we really loved it. But realised it’s really boring having red cherry tomatoes… it’s not a farmers market thing. So we did our usual thing, came home after the market and thought ‘we gotta do something more interesting’. And the next week we ripped out half of the greenhouse. And we re-planted heaps of really interesting things…
Anthony: the market didn’t exist, what we were doing. Slowly more people are interested.
Now everyone wants it.
Keegan: Do you want to grow any bigger?
Anthony: No I’d rather do less.
Angela: When you’re small like us and you do what we do. Bigger doesn’t really work. It’s a struggle, to get bigger – you grow the scale – you’re bigger – it doesn’t work. If any thing we’d prefer to be smaller.
…The thing that’s always in your head, is’ the more stuff you have, the more money you make’… But that’s rubbish. . The more you have, the more problems you can have… Nowadays in the supermarket, it’s a bit different, you’re allowed your own labels. Back in the day, you used to have to have a generic label, it was really horrible.
If you’ve got this small family farm, you can’t supply to a supermarket or anything like that… There’s so much you have to do, to get into a supermarket.
Anthony: [pointing] These also have a really long shelf life. And these guys have a rubbish shelf life.
Angela: I think there is a lot of really interesting people throughout New Zealand, doing really exciting things with food.
Anthony – it’s nice having the academic community on board too. And they wants us to succeed. Even if we say we haven’t got so much money so – they give us advice for free. Whereas if we were Fonterra…. ….
Anthony: [pointing] Here’s an example of what that little pest does –
Angela: That’s the thing with the psyllids, they give the plant one little bite, and they give the plant a virus and that’s it – they ruin it. It’s the whole plant. It’s a bit of a nightmare.
Anthony: We put up more sticky traps around the plants. At the end of the season if things get out of control, we might need to use pesticides. So we’re not organic, but we’re certainly working towards it.
Angela: A lot of our friends are organic growers too, so they look to us to what we’re doing. It’s great, that’s the lovely thing when you’re dealing with a lot of small growers. Everyone’s into sharing.
Keegan: How important is it to be in Clevedon then?
Anthony: What’s good about Clevedon, is that no one’s growing very much close to us. Let’s say there’s a lot of conventional growers around us, they will be spraying a lot of pesticides.
We’re not gonna get their insecticide resistant insects. What happens outside, is you spray chemicals but you kill the good guys first, and then you create a race of super bugs that will then come in here – exactly like antibiotics.
It’s the same with the kaukapa that are growing in, that’s an entire ecosystem.
Keegan: So similar to the concept of Terroir?
Anthony: Yes, but it’s our own created Terroir
Anthony: It looks like it’s just black, it’s been nurtured – this compost is two years old now. Every year it gets better and we keep it. We want to nurture the micro organisms. You can tell if a microorganism is good based on how good the plants are. Conventional thinking would be ‘you must throw out the compost, every year’. But, what they’re saying is, you mustn’t grow for the second year – because you’re carrying over all of the diseases.
Angela: But as far as we’re concerned, we’re carrying over all of the good stuff.
Anthony: It’s a totally alive thing. It’s almost like a society. If we’ve got one creature that gets sick, we’ve got a hospital and they get looked after. So there will be bad guys in here, but because they’re overwhelmed by the good guys then, they control it.
Angela: It works.
Anthony: We’ve got to work really hard to keep them alive.
James: How long have you been doing this?
Anthony: 10 or so years. So it must work. Otherwise we’d stop.
Angela: But people in bigger places I think it’s too scary for them – it’s too risky.
James: What made you try it?
Anthony: We ran out of money, we didn’t have enough money to re-plant… but the science was there… and it makes scientific sense to me.
Angela: Oh and see all of the leaves? In a more modern greenhouse, this would all be pristine and kept back. We leave all of our leaves down there, as there are good insects down there. If we pull them out and biff em out, we are potentially losing them.
Anthony: You’ve either gotta be super sterile and super hygienic and everyone wears white suits and you sterilize the water and all that, or you go completely opposite where you’ve got the kombucha, and let it bubble away.
20 years ago we were into all of the white gear and the washed everything …
Keegan: Funny how you can come full circle like that.
Anthony: – but it wasn’t working.
30 years ago when I started, we sprayed the white fly and you had to do it twice a week and they weren’t even dying.
Angela: Anthony, because he was doing it, he was getting really sick. We knew there had to be another way. This was about that time bio force started doing Ancarcia – it’s that that works for the white fly. When we started doing all of that, we’d get the chemical coming in here.
If you’ve got white fly- and serious white fly- you go into some greenhouses, they will be absolutely swarming. There’s some country school – Waiuku – there was a white fly infestation – on an outdoor crop. They’ll be smothered…
We’ve had chemical people coming in and suggesting us so many things, and they don’t come anymore.
Anthony: You don’t wanna be using anything, and then if you do, you want to be using the most gentle one possible. Safe and as simple as possible.
**** PART TWO ****
Keegan: Where do you source tomatoes?
Anthony: Everywhere. Our customers send them to us. This is from a lady in Masterton…
Angela: This why our nursery goes mental. Seeds like this are the equivalent of unsafe sex.
Angela: We were in the paper, a while a few years back, this old lady, we got a letter, and her husband who was then deceased, she said he’d been in the war in Italy, and he’d brought back tomato seeds. She kept them going, every year since 1946.
Anthony: If you can grow it yourself, it’s a heritage tomato.
Angela: It’s just keeping the seeds, keeping them growing every year.
Anthony: So when this lady’s husband died, she sent the seeds to us to carry on his legacy . So this is rather like we’re keeping him alive.
Angela: It’s really, really important. On our Facebook page we’ve just said, anyone who wants seeds, send us your address. So now there’s going to be a lot of people around New Zealand who are growing this tomato, that would’ve otherwise died out in New Zealand.
Keegan: Have you always been obsessed by tomatoes?
Anthony: – Yup, it grows on you. It’s rather like being a collector of obscure things. You see a variety you’ve never grown before – you think, yeah, I’ve gotta have that in my collection…
Anthony: It’s a bit geeky… but we’ve been looking for this obscure tomato, for years.
and last year we got seeds, and they didn’t germinate. It’s name is Anais Noire – it’s supposed to have pineapple hints.
Angela: This is the joy when you’re growing heirlooms, we pick them because we like the names, because it’s a seed, that’s all you’ve really got to go on. You have no idea what they’re gonna look like.
Anthony: — you can’t grow too many, because you might not sell one. We grow four of the obscure variety, now. In the past, we’d say ‘oh let’s grow 100 of them’ and then every single one went rotten before you picked it…
Angela: At the beginning of the season, everything comes on slow. As the season goes on, we produce more and more. These are the first picks – so their flavor hasn’t really developed yet. They need sun. That’s why you don’t grow them in Winter. If you need to pick them, it should be as ripe as possible, that’s when the flavor is there. If you pick something unripe, it will colour up, but the flavor won’t be there. That’s the thing with supermarkets – they want an extended shelf life.
Angela: One thing that’s the most exciting about selling to chefs – because we sell from down here to up here. You get those really high end ones and some of the things they do…. Their imagination…. We’ll take a whole lot of tomatoes, slice them up, and put them in a salad and we call it beautiful, but they just come up with things that blows your mind…
Anthony: Like squirt, sucking that out and calling that Tomato caviar …
Angela: With the cherry tomatoes – those really high end ones – those will be peeled….
Anthony: Just to improve the texture…
Anthony: We sell some stuff at Farro, just because there’s a bunch of people who really want our stuff. Often we’ve got friends who really wanna buy our stuff, but don’t make it to the market.
Angela: … We sell a lot in Grey Lynn, at Farro.
Anthony: Or sometimes they’re doing a photo shoot, there’s a lot of food writers. They go to Farro, buy a few tomatoes and they’ll pop up somewhere.
Anthony: Perhaps what we’re doing, might not have worked 10 years before we started. Not without instagram, and stuff like that.
Angela: Social media has been the biggest thing for us I think. For us, doing the work on social media – being able to have that platform. We never would’ve been able to afford advertising. With social media we’ve been able to build a really organic following. The people that follow us are a certain type of people.
Anthony: it’s a certain kind of people that follow us too.
Angela: We went to the cuisine good food awards, and we saw Deborah Pead she was talking to us and said she is so impressed with our branding, and what we’re doing –
Keegan: Is there a tomato alcohol out there?
Angela: We’ve made them before. Do you know Johnny Squash in Christchurch? He did a tomato beer with our tomatoes, but that was just for fun. So you’ve gotta make a tomato water, and then use that in the beer.
Anthony: not too much
Keegs: What about a Bloody Mary mix?
Anthony: Tomato beer is more approachable I think. The thing with Bloody Mary’s is with all the other stuff added in, it doesn’t really taste like tomatoes…
Angela: We’ve done a few things with Sean Connolly from Gusto on the grill, we were looking at a juice.. But for how expensive it would be using our tomatoes, it just wouldn’t be worth it. You could buy the crappiest tomato juice and it would taste fine.. You’re adding so many strong flavours that you lost our subtle flavours…
Anthony: And we’re subtle.
Keegan: How long do you spend at the market a week?
Angela: A day. And it’s good that it’s on a Sunday.
Anthony: Yeah, I mean… It’s a whole day in terms of thinking, in terms of getting there.
Keegan: Do you ever play music to your tomatoes?
Anthony: Oh, All the time.
Angela: We know the food magazines, we know Cuisine. Have you met Caley Brett? Her and her business partner Vanessa Storm now own it – they’re an independent now. And it’s a really full on thing to do. She’s really turned Cuisine around, and she’s doing lots of talk about New Zealand and really talking about New Zealand – she’s an Australian… It’s taken an Australian to come into New Zealand, to go mental about New Zealand.
You can keep up with the Curious Croppers on instagram: @curiouscroppers