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How thinking small is yielding big results for market gardeners

Taranaki market gardener Jodi Roebuck.

Innovative growers are starting to think small in New Zealand – with some impressive results. Anthony Byrt goes down on the farm with bio-intensive market gardener Jodi Roebuck.

Along a wooden bench under a transparent plastic roof, trays and trays of tiny plants grow in incredible colours: autumnal reds, trippy purples, and multiple depths of green – a miniature forest of peas and amaranth and mustards. It’s pretty as hell. Tobi, a tall, archetypally German 21-year-old travelling the world to learn about bio-intensive gardening, explains how the microgreens set-up works.

The crop grows in a matter of days, he tells me, and a 70g bag goes for $5. The morning’s quick 800g harvest, then, has yielded about 60 bucks. Then he breaks up a chunk of tray soil and holds it up to me. Thick with roots, it’s perfect, carbon-rich material for composting. Next to the microgreens, tightly packed tomato plants reach for the roof, covered in fruit. Just behind them are cucumbers, climbing up wires. Every space of the makeshift greenhouse is growing something. Tobi’s boss, Taranaki market gardener Jodi Roebuck, can’t remember the German name for the tomatoes. “Riesentraube,” Tobi intones, perfectly.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Roebuck, who’s based just outside New Plymouth, made his name as a restorative grazier, taking land where the soil and pasture had been hammered by overgrazing – including the 2.8ha block he and his wife bought in 2004, but mostly other people’s – and turning it into rich, fertile, bio-diverse pasture. By “mob grazing” his sheep intensively in small spaces, for a matter of hours or a day at most before moving them on, he slowly transformed the landscape, and the soil quality.

But since 2016, it’s what he’s been doing with his own rebuilt topsoil that has put him on a much larger agricultural map. On a sliver of his farm, Roebuck is developing a thriving vegetable business: intensive, chemical-free – and profitable. It’s put him at the international vanguard of a new way of market gardening. And it’s a small model that could have a big impact on how we think about food security, climate-change resilience and nutrition in the very near future.

Out in the garden proper, Roebuck shows me a narrow, 14m-long lettuce bed, just harvested: plants not pulled out but shaved clean, their crunchy stumps still in the ground. It’s a demonstration of his bio-intensive business in stark relief. From this bed alone, the morning yield – which Tobi had washed and dried and was halfway through bagging when I arrived – is 25kg of leaves. And that was the second cut from the same plants. The first, a few weeks earlier, had yielded 40kg (roughly $900 worth of salad) – all of it spray-free and grown in actual soil rather than a hydroponic system, which means more flavour and structure to the leaves, and a far longer shelf life.

The garden is a highly concentrated, tightly managed system built on solid permaculture principles. For several years, Roebuck worked alongside Kay Baxter at Koanga Institute, which holds New Zealand’s largest collection of heritage food plants, when it was still based in Kaiwaka. (It has since shifted to Wairoa.) Alongside Baxter, he acquired a deep understanding of permaculture and a flair for education; he still teaches occasional classes at Koanga, as well as regular workshops at home on Roebuck Farm. But restorative grazing and seed harvesting were his real passions. Then, in 2016, came his epiphany, delivered in the form of two Canadian market gardeners, Curtis Stone and Jean-Martin Fortier.

Stone and Fortier had made their international reputations on opposite sides of Canada, in completely different climates. Fortier’s farm in Quebec, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, established in the early 2000s, brought him note because of his ability to generate around C$140,000 (NZD$165,000) from 0.6 of a hectare (1.48 acres) of bio-intensive vegetable production. Stone, in Kelowna, British Columbia, set up Green City Acres in 2010, a completely urban farm using other people’s land – essentially, leased backyards. And just like Fortier, he put up staggering numbers, grossing at least C$75,000 on around a third of an acre (0.13 hectares).

One of Roebuck’s assistants prepares the soil by hand before a new crop is planted.
Despite the different settings, their principles were extremely close: grow intensively and sustainably in permanent beds, on a small scale, producing nutrient-dense food that’s sold fresh and locally, with minimal external inputs and high profit margins. In 2016, Roebuck hosted the pair for a gardening workshop at his farm. Since then, he’s been on a relentless drive to put their systems into action here in New Zealand.

His own garden currently has 90 permanent beds, adding up to about 900 square metres of cultivated growing space. He moves between the beds with the yogic smoothness of a former serious surfer, but the energy and bounce of someone hellbent on eliminating any semblance of inefficiency or sloth from his systems. He is, in this sense, a perfect, buzzing embodiment of the model he, Stone, Fortier and a handful of others around the world are pioneering, in which organic values collide with a “time is money” ruthlessness.

Stone’s “Crop Value Rating System” is essential to this. “That’s just massive for us in assessing what we’re going to grow and identifying the weakest link on the farm,” Roebuck says. “For us, it’s fast turnover, high value, multiple cuts, long harvest, and what’s popular.”

For a small-scale farmer, Stone’s system means making some obvious choices. Crops such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli are out, because they take up so much space and result in a relatively low-value “single-cut” product. So too potatoes and onions, which need to be stored for a long time. But things like microgreens, salad greens, kale, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, radishes, baby beets and some cucumbers all mature quickly and come with a premium if they’re marketed right. Even carrots work, because they’re high yield and cheap to grow. They also attract a premium if they have their tops on, with customers paying more because they seem fresher.

Rather than hardcore permaculture ideologues, then, these guys are a new kind of hybrid farmer: organic pragmatists. “That’s a good way of describing it,” Stone tells me, from Canada. “I do a lot of consulting around the world, and I’ve been to farms that get these permaculture ideas, and it’s a disaster to undo them. I still think a lot of permaculture principles are fantastic. It’s just that there’s some wishy-washy stuff in it.”

All three men, though, readily acknowledge the influence of older farmers, including organic heroes Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin, and the bio-intensive innovator John Jeavons. That earlier generation forged their beliefs and farming systems in the face of industrialised agriculture and multiple environmental scandals – such as Rachel Carson’s exposé of the pesticides industry in her 1962 book Silent Spring; the smallholder-crushing force of agricultural giants like Monsanto; and the devastating defoliation caused by the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Growing naturally and holistically was about more than healthy food, it was an essential plank in a counterculture that questioned systems of power which put profits before people and the environment.

Roebuck is a huge believer in the potential of soil carbon sequestration and its effects on healthy food production – it’s a key factor in both his gardening techniques and his sheep grazing.

Jeavons’ influence is particularly – and, in Roebuck’s case, profoundly – important. In the 70s, after observing just how inefficient corporate farming was in the United States, Jeavons developed an enclosed, sustainable gardening system that made it possible for communities to grow all of their food and calorie needs in small spaces, in permanent beds. To make this work without any external inputs, farmers need to plant 50-60% of their total crops as “carbon crops” – things like corn, sunflowers, amaranth, alfalfa and sorghum, which produce enough mature plant material to become carbon-rich compost for the higher-calorie foods like root vegetables.

Carbon, in the form of decomposed organic matter, is the absolute key to the system because it improves soil structure, enabling plants to take up the nutrients they need efficiently and effectively. The roots of previous crops are part of this, too. Rather than yanking them out of the ground when the crop is harvested, leaving the roots in allows them to break down, feeding the soil and its microbial life.

In 2003, Roebuck interned in California with Jeavons for seven months, where he developed, he says, “what I now take for granted, which is a skillset to transform and deepen a soil”. But growing mature carbon crops in a half-acre market garden that depends on clever space utilisation for its profits would be “super labour-intensive, and those crops take over part of your summer season when you’re doing everything else. That’s good for the planet, but it’s not good in terms of seeing your wife. So the trade-off is sustainability versus profitability.”

As a result, Roebuck buys in good-quality compost. Alongside seeds and tools, it’s his only external input. Stone takes the same approach. He acknowledges the vital importance of Jeavons’ work but sees it as being more useful in the developing world, “because he was really looking at a very low-tech way of farming, which is very valid in that context. But it’s not valid in my context. It doesn’t make sense [for me] to make compost piles by growing a bed of alfalfa. It makes sense if you don’t have any resources.”

There’s another technique that Roebuck and Jean-Martin Fortier use near-religiously on their farms to get carbon into the ground quickly: tarping. At any given time in Roebuck’s garden, a solid number of his beds are under black tarps. Usually, this is after he’s grown some kind of cover crop. As the cover crop grows, it helps to put nutrients like nitrogen and carbon back into the soil through root exudates. In the winter, Roebuck’s preferred cover crop is oats; in summer, it’s buckwheat.

When those crops get to a reasonable level of maturity, Roebuck chops and drops them in place, then covers the whole bed with a tarp. Without light and with the extra heat generated under the cover, the plant material starts to decompose quickly. Worms come up to harvest it and take it back down. The result is a huge injection of carbon in a short timeframe. After a few weeks – instead of the months tied up in conventional composting – and with a bit of added manure, the bed is ready for the next vegetable crop.

Roebuck harvests quickly and gets multiple cuts from his intensive lettuce beds.  Efficiency is a crucial aspect of his business model.

In a recent conversation, Roebuck tells me about a new cover-crop technique he’s using: growing microgreens in outdoor beds rather than a greenhouse. Twice a week, he sows peas in 3m strips that take 12-14 days to reach microgreen maturity. In that time, 25% of the plant’s energy is given off through root exudates, feeding the soil, while the roots themselves develop into that carbon-rich humus Tobi had so proudly showed me in the greenhouse.

“It’s basically a two-week cover crop,” Roebuck says, excitedly. “We make 750 bucks off a bed, we tarp it, and three to five weeks later we’ve got this bed of gold we can then plant back in.”

There’s a big reason these guys spend so much time thinking about carbon and tinkering with soil structure: it’s the crucial ingredient in the quality of their product, its marketability, and their eventual profitability. Carbon-rich soil results in stronger plants and nutrient-dense produce, which is healthier and tastier for consumers. Healthier plants also have much better insect resistance. The depth of the soil matters too, which is why having permanent beds, rather than whole fields that are ploughed between harvests, is so important. Exposing soils releases soil carbon; the longer they’re uncovered, the more carbon is lost. But permanent beds can be deepened and enriched, while being almost constantly covered.

Both Roebuck and Fortier swear by the broadfork as the essential tool for this, its long tines aerating soil and working in organic matter without actually turning the bed over. Deeper soil means plant roots can grow down rather than across. As a result, they aren’t competing with each other for nutrients, and more can grow in a smaller space. And when the plants mature, they cover the entire bed, reducing weed pressure and eliminating the need for glyphosate.

There’s a bigger-picture point about this focus on soil carbon, too. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which led to the Paris Agreement, France introduced the “4 per 1000” initiative. Essentially, this was a proposal that all nations increase their soil-carbon stocks by 0.4% per year. The key to this is more intensive planting – grasslands, pasture, forestry, and food crops – not only because the plants themselves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they’re growing, but because the organic matter they generate can be used to sequester carbon in soils. And that improves soil quality, helping to address one of climate change’s great existential threats: food security.

Roebuck is a huge believer in the potential of soil-carbon sequestration and its effects on healthy food production – it’s a key factor in both his gardening techniques and his sheep grazing. “I know farmers that are farming 5000 acres [2020 hectares] and sequestering carbon, with maybe one employee,” he says. “That’s effective. Whereas if we look at feed lots and hard ‘grazing’, if we can even call it that, it doesn’t look too good for the planet.”

A harvest of radishes from Roebuck’s market garden. “For me, the home garden is closely connected to resilience and self-provision,” he says

From an ecological perspective, then, there’s a lot to commend the new bio-intensive market garden, which prioritises soil carbon, cover cropping, space and water efficiency, and nutrient density. In New Zealand, it could also start to answer one of our major challenges. Population pressure is making land seriously expensive. Farms, orchards and market gardens are being chopped up and sold in ever-smaller blocks, and often aren’t used for food production after they change hands. This is a threat in areas with some of our most valuable food-

producing soils, such as Pukekohe. Building over that soil is a travesty. If it does happen, at least the bio-intensive model could partly offset the production loss.

However, even its most innovative practitioners are wary of being over-zealous. “I don’t believe small farms can feed the world,” Stone tells me. “I’m more of a pragmatist than a lot of people in this space. I think large farms will feed the world. But we can take the things we learn from small farms and apply them [to larger farms]. For me, the small farming model is all about quality of life for someone who wants to live on a farm, have a family, and craft a nice lifestyle, where they’re working the land and connected to their community.”

Then there are the realities of the customer base. Right now, most small-scale market gardeners sell to buyer’s groups and restaurants, and at farmer’s markets – proof that produce like this is still largely a middle-class luxury. “Of course it is!” Stone says. “I have no problems with that. I have no problems with going out and selling food to the highest bidder. Frankly, if you’re in business and you don’t do that, you’re not going to be in business for very long because somebody else is going to do it.”

In 2018, money talks. But Stone has also sensed a shift in the nine years he’s been doing this. “There’s a growing interest in the products, and a growing interest in the culture,” he says. “I don’t want to say a back-to-land movement, but something similar… Because of the amount of information we have out there [on the internet, where Stone is a successful YouTuber with around 250,000 subscribers], I think there’s a little less naive romanticism than there was in the 60s and 70s with the back-to-landers.”

Roebuck may share Stone’s business focus, but he still strikes me as an idealist at heart. And if he does have a mission, it emerges in the educational workshops he runs at Roebuck Farm, which are often more for home gardeners than people who want to grow vegetables full-time.

“For me, the home garden is closely connected to resilience and self-provision,” he says. “In New Zealand, maybe there are 500 people who want to be small-scale market gardeners, yet there’s probably half a million who want a backyard garden. We’re all time-poor, and we still need to set up our backyard so it’s efficient and we can get as much as we can from it. So that’s what we’re helping people with.”

Resilience is a word Stone uses, too. And reconnection: the idea that most of us have become divorced from food production – not only from the plants, but the growing medium itself. At its most basic, small-scale intensive vegetable production is about the pleasure and fundamental importance of caring for soil.

On one of my visits, on a cold July day, Roebuck fixed a late lunch after we’d spent a couple of hours outside. He pulled a few carrots and a handful of radishes from their beds as we headed to the house, where the shoulder of a hogget from his flock had been in the slow-cooker all morning. He joked about getting fat from carrots because of the amount of butter he likes to cook them in.

He joined me at the table, and I realised it was the first time I’d seen Roebuck completely still; this wiry, busy, intense gardener, talking about his goals for his business and looking out the window at where he was reshaping the future, for him and his family. But perhaps reshaping things beyond that half-acre, too.

Photo/Getty

The state of New Zealand’s soil carbon

The government’s plan to plant a billion trees is a crucial plank in its climate change strategy. It’s also no secret that our huge dairy industry is one of our biggest greenhouse gas emitters. But France’s “4 per 1000” climate initiative has highlighted a different issue at the heart of New Zealand agriculture: the state of our soil-carbon stocks.

Professor Louis Schipper at the University of Waikato has studied New Zealand’s soil-carbon levels extensively. He reckons our soils are actually in pretty good shape. The challenge, he says, is to maintain the soil carbon we’ve got – and to build a better understanding of the consequences of recent management practices and land-use conversions, such as the move from dry stock to dairy.

The science, Schipper points out, is only partially complete. It’s clear both pasture and forestry are efficient ways to sequester carbon (with pines, there’s less in the soil but that’s offset by the amount stored in the plant itself). Where things get trickier is around how pastures are managed, and the external inputs used to support growth.

Several studies have shown that the use of phosphorus fertiliser, while increasing pasture growth, has no measurable effect on soil-carbon levels. But there haven’t yet been any long-term trials of the effects of nitrogen-based fertilisers (crucial to intensive dairying and at the heart of the freshwater pollution debate) on soil-carbon levels, which Schipper says is a big, important gap in our knowledge. New Zealand research does, however, already show that irrigation can decrease soil-carbon stocks.

What everyone in the field agrees on is that maintaining or increasing soil-carbon levels could play a vital role in offsetting CO² emissions, while improving soil quality. And the best way to do this – whether with pasture, pine forest, natives or vegetables – is to keep soil covered with growing plants as much as possible.

A flagship for the future

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Whangara Farms is internationally recognised as a world leader in the “three Es” of responsibility: environmental safeguarding, ethical practices and economic viability. This farming partnership on the East Coast near Gisborne began in 2006 and now covers 1500ha, running 2500 Angus breeding cows and 60,000 sheep.

“Sustainability is the key to every decision we make, because the decisions we make today and the way we treat the land are going to affect future generations,” says general manager Richard Scholefield, who has created a farming model that measures and benchmarks farm sustainability across key areas of the business.

With support from McDonald’s,  Beef + Lamb New Zealand and Silver Fern Farms, Whangara Farms has implemented an action plan that includes targeted planting of 3500 trees each year in areas at risk of erosion, and the fencing of all waterways and tributaries. A rotational grazing policy keeps both pasture and livestock in prime condition, and cattle are individually monitored via electronic ID tags.

In September, Whangara Farms was recognised on a global scale with its official appointment to the McDonald’s Flagship Farmers programme – the first time a farm outside Europe and the UK has been selected for its sustainability practices. The programme not only identifies exceptional farmers but also empowers them to share their knowledge and experience.

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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