Asparagus and dairying aren’t industries you think of as working hand-in-hand. But an innovative family has made it work and say the two businesses complement each other nicely.
Geoff and Liz Lewis started growing asparagus in 1981 and their business, Tendertips, is now one of the main asparagus producers in the country, supplying major supermarkets and selling through their packhouse shop.
The couple started out managing a sheep and beef farm, until the owners decided they wanted to try their hand at kiwifruit. Geoff disagreed with their choice, so they challenged him to find something that would grow in the sandy Horowhenua soils.
And he did – asparagus. After seeing its success Geoff and Liz bought a block and started growing it themselves. The business has boomed and is now co-owned by Geoff, Liz and their son Cam and his wife Catherine.
Their business also includes two dairy farms with 900 cows. When Cam left university and went rural banking it was a time when the more land you owned, the more money you made.
His parents owned a dairy farm they leased out and Cam convinced them to irrigate the land and run it themselves.
Not long after, Geoff’s uncle lost a 50:50 sharemilker at the eleventh hour and offered the farm to Cam’s parents to buy.
“The two businesses work well together. With my banking background I wanted to own land, long-term I thought it was a good investment and I saw dairy farming as an easy way of achieving that.
“It has good cashflow and it means the dairy farms take care of most of our land holding,” Cam says.
Some of the land used for asparagus is also used as a runoff block for the dairy businesses, creating a dual purpose for the land, and Cam is even tinkering with the idea of feeding asparagus offcuts to the cows as extra feed.
Having the two businesses means they are able to carry more machinery, saving on contracting costs for both businesses.
Until recently Cam was very involved day-to-day in the dairy farms, but wanting a change and starting to think about the future, he decided to take a step back.
The family are starting to shift from having managers to contract milkers, to allow Cam to move into the asparagus business.
“Dad was wanting to step back a bit more from the business so it was really a succession thing – me stepping back from the dairy farms and into Tendertips.”
When Geoff first started the business, about 6000 tonnes of asparagus was grown nationally, far more than needed for the domestic market.
As a result much of it was canned or exported, which gave many growers, including Geoff, a chance to get into the export market.
Now the New Zealand industry grows about 3000 tonnes each year but the demand from international markets like Japan is continuing to increase.
From paddock to plate, it takes three days for asparagus to go from paddocks in Horowhenua to the supermarkets of Japan.
On average, of the 550t (paid weight) they grow each year about 120t is sold for export.
In the local market they are a dominant force, holding an 80% market share in the South Island supermarket business and a large proportion of the lower North Island as well.
“We are lucky here because the season starts in mid-September compared to Canterbury whose season doesn’t kick off until mid-October, so because we are closest to the ferry we are able to pick up the business in that region.”
As with most businesses their biggest cost is labour. The two dairy farms are run by seven staff but the asparagus operation requires a workforce of 150 people.
They have a few full-time employees in the asparagus business including an engineer.
When the asparagus season is over they change hats and do maintenance work on the dairy farms.
Managing the 150 staff has been a big change for Cam, and a lot of time and effort goes into ensuring workers are happy for their 100-day picking stint.
Packhouse and pickers are two separate crews. There’s a mix of Pacific Islanders, RSE workers and refugees from Bhutan.
“Because we are allowed to bring the RSE Samoans in we try and work really closely with Work and Income and Ministry of Immigration to make sure we are playing the game appropriately. Without those guys we would be stuffed, it’s hard work what they do.”
They also have a group of Grey Nomads, older people who travel in buses and motor homes and work their way around NZ horticulture, moving through vineyards, stone fruit and kiwifruit.
We have very few chemicals involved in growing asparagus, and all going well they shouldn’t need spraying throughout the harvest.
It’s a big change from the early days, when many of the workers were local farmers’ wives or solo mums making a bit of extra money before Christmas.
As with dairying, there is a lot of room for technological advances to make the asparagus business more efficient and many of the things in the Tendertips pack house are Geoff’s own creations.
The hot water bath is the start of the quarantine process. The asparagus is fully immersed in warm water at a temperature that won’t cook the asparagus but kills insects and gives the asparagus a lovely bright green colour. It’s ideal for the Japanese market, which favours lighter green spears.
“It’s a great chemical-free way to make sure the bugs are killed.
“We have very few chemicals involved in growing asparagus, and all going well they shouldn’t need spraying throughout the harvest.”
Geoff worked with Plant & Food Research on the hot water bath and the process means their asparagus doesn’t have to be gassed with methyl bromide before it ships out to Japan.
Tendertips are the only export producers who do this.
“We are really proud of this process, it’s great for our brand. The conversation of price goes out the window because the Japanese just really want our produce, so we can get a higher premium for it, especially by using the hot water bath.”
The packhouse is also home to a unique grading machine developed by Massey University to overcome some of the issues they were having with off-the-shelf European graders, which were designed to handle larger bunches than we have in NZ.
Once the asparagus has gone through cutting and manual sorting it goes into a stainless steel box with a camera that takes a series of three-dimensional photos of every spear to work out how much it weighs. Spears are then dropped into a chute according to size to make 250g bunches.
“Once it thinks it has 250g the bunches will drop down the chute and someone will tie them together, check weigh them to make sure they are at least 250g and then send them down the line.”
The imaging also checks for white butts (white parts at the base of asparagus spear) that might still be present after the initial cut.
If spears with white butts are present they will be moved further down the line for another cut and the process repeats.
“The vision technology was developed by Massey and it’s a great way for students to gain experience in the practical things. The technology is very much Dad’s thing.”
Although now fully immersed in the asparagus business, Cam and Catherine joke that when dealing with people gets too much for them, they have the option of working with the cows for a day.
Horowhenua Taste Trail
The first Horowhenua Taste Trails kicks off on November 12. The Trail was Geoff’s brain child, and aims to celebrate Horowhenua’s produce and tell the region’s story.
In previous years Tendertips has been home to festivals that showcased the art made by some of their talented packhouse workers.
“We did that for two years but wanted to change it up. We got some key producers in the area in the room and pitched the Taste Trail idea to them and they all got on board,” Catherine says.
The one-day Taste Trail will showcase nine producers in Horowhenua as well as a farm tour, and will include tastings, tours, produce for purchase and entertainment at some sites.
Tendertips will be home to local food truck Little White Rabbit, with asparagus-inspired food to convert non-asparagus eating folk and plenty of fresh asparagus for sale.
“The Horowhenua produces a wide range of things. We don’t specialise in one thing like Bay of Plenty or Hawke’s Bay tends to.
“We have all these niche-producing entrepreneurs having a go and we want people to know about us,” Cam says.
The region gets a bit of stick but Cam and Catherine say locals should be proud of all the wonderful things going on and the amazing food and produce.
Fonterra has also jumped on board with the Taste Trail to give people a unique dairy experience on another Horowhenua farm.
- Asparagus can grow up to 2cm every two hours in optimum conditions
- It doesn’t like wet feet so needs free-draining soils
- Cold weather gives asparagus a dark green colour and lower yields, and warm weather a lighter green colour and higher yields
- It has a 100-day season
- It is planted once every 15 years.
FARM FACTS – Lewis Dairies
Owners – Cam and Catherine, Geoff and Liz Lewis
- Total area both farms – Opae 162 ha, River 190 ha
- Total cows – 900
- Locations – Poroutawhao, Levin
Production (for each farm total herd)
- Opae – 190-200,000kg MS 400 cows
- River – 200-225,000kg MS 500 cows
FARM FACTS – Tendertips Asparagus
Owners – Cam and Catherine, Geoff and Liz Lewis
- Location – Levin, Horowhenua
- Area – 108ha
- Production – 500-550 tonnes paid weight
- Export – 120t
- Workers – 150
– Cheyenne Stein