What’s on your table tonight?
I remember the first time I saw a banana tree, I was stunned at the growth patterns of what looked like upside bananas. I had a similar amazed reaction when I first saw cotton growing – endless rows of white fluff - when I had only ever seen the finished product. Recently, a news piece came through with the horrifying statistic that 7% of adults in the US believe chocolate milk comes directly from cows. But, is it really such a surprising statistic when you ask yourself what do you really know about the food on your table?
Most of us walk into the supermarket and buy our food from nicely stacked shelves, without thinking much about how it was grown. I am the same, especially for foods grown outside of the Otago region. Most of us know what an apple orchard looks like, but how about a pineapple farm, a cashew nut farm, or even a sugarcane farm?
I was lucky enough recently to speak at the New Zealand Horticulture conference where Otago orchardists, Stephen Darling, of Ettrick, and Gary Bennetts, of Roxburgh, were awarded lifetime memberships (ODT, 20th July). As their accolades were read, outlining their commitment to both the good of the industry and producing quality fruit, I reflected on the fact that horticulture in Otago and New Zealand in general, rarely comes to the fore unless there is a disease outbreak, such as PSA in kiwifruit.
According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2016, fruit, the country's fourth-largest export commodity, jumped 31 per cent to $2.63 billion, while dairy exports, the largest group, declined 7.3 per cent to $11.16 billion. This horticultural rise has been led by kiwifruit and traveling around the Bay of Plenty, there is evidence of more conversion of livestock land to horticulture, particularly kiwifruit.
I have started to show my age, in that when I hear about conversions like this, I worry about our maturity as a nation of growers following booms and busts: goats, alpacas, dairy, kiwifruit – do we have the resilience and business structures required to ride the lows when they inevitably come?
Despite my nagging concerns, the positive energy, combined with the realism of growers at the conference was inspiring. I sat at dinner with a young vegetable grower from Pukekohe. He told me of the considerable producer and path-to-market innovations they were implementing as we tucked into a plateful of “lotatoes” – no that’s not a typo. Lotatoes have been bred by T&G to have “40% less carbs in every spud.” Right now, carbohydrates are on the consumer black-list, and nutrient-rich complex-carbohydrate potatoes are being wrongly maligned. Lotatoes are a great example of how, through selective breeding, we can meet consumer demands. And of course, they tasted pretty good, although they were smothered in oil so any gain I made from eating lower carbs was well and truly made-up for – it didn’t help that I ate a big plateful of dessert as well - I guess T&G can only do so much!
This week, after flooding and seeing stoic farmers on the news, toughing it out, I stood in the fresh produce section of the supermarket just a bit longer than usual, mentally celebrating how the avocadoes, carrots, broccoli, spring onions, tamarillos and kiwifruit came to market. Livestock farmers often hit the news when there are floods or snow during lambing and calving. Our horticulturalists have to be equally, if not more resilient – hailstorms in January can wipe out a year’s income in the space of 15 minutes.
Like livestock farmers, horticulturalists are traveling the path of how to be more sustainable and ensure they receive the value for their products that they deserve – beautiful, plump red Central Otago cherries being sold in Asian cities for a premium is a great sight. I suspect over the next few years we will be hearing a lot more from this sector which is just quietly on the rise.