Getting fresh in the field: a day with The Fresh Grower

by | May 31, 2023 | Opinion

It’s a miraculously sunny Monday morning and I’m standing in a field in Pukekohe.  No, it wasn’t a crazy weekend gone awry, I have purposely turned off the motorway to be here.  In fact, I love the chance to don my gumboots and quite literally get out in the field.  So, when Wendy Voegelin invited me to her first Producers Showcase, I jumped at the chance.

Wendy is an Economic Growth Advisor specializing in food and tourism who after many years at Ateed (now Tātaki Auckland Unlimited) has set up her own business, Kismet Culinary.  With a real passion and knowledge of Pukekohe, Wendy has been working closely with growers like Allan Fong, The Fresh Grower. Wendy says Allan is “one of the most innovative and forward-thinking growers I have ever met.”

Allan Fong

Today’s fieldtrip was alongside the Restaurant Association with the goal of connecting chefs with the growers.  Allan Fong is the perfect grower for such a challenge!

Allan and his family have been farming the rich volcanic soils of Pukekohe for over three generations.  But the secret sauce for The Fresh Grower and what sets Alan apart from other growers is his love of eating the food he grows.

This becomes evident when Allans team serves up one of his newest crops: white turnips seared with miso and topped with wasabi peas and Crunchetta lettuce cups filled with pork larb.  When we talk about “team” we really mean family as Allan’s son, daughter, nephews and nieces are all heralding a new generation of Fresh Growers, including the pair cooking us lunch who normally don their whites in a swanky restaurant in Auckland.

Allan says food service is a key market for the Fresh Grower who has led the way introducing new vegetables to Kiwis, from the likes of baby pak choy to Bellaverde – the sweet long-stemmed broccoli loved by chefs and now home cooks.  Extensive in-field crop trials allow Allan to break new ground and create new taste sensations for chefs to plate up.  A favourite of mine is his caulilini – the cauliflower version of Ballaverde, delicious steamed, stir fried and roasted!

As we wander through the fields Allan picks and munches on the different leaves explaining the process it takes to get this beautiful fresh produce to the market. With the constant rain, not to mention several devastating floods, this is no mean feat!

The crops are all handpicked, then minimally processed in their pack house.  This mainly involves removal of any damaged leaves, a quick wash before being packaged in The Fresh Grower’s iconically branded packaging.

The waste, all those damaged leaves consumers won’t eat, are currently sent off as feed for animals, although Allan is excited about a pilot project which will see wastage fed to maggots which in turn create protein rich feed for animals.  Philosophically Allan suggests, only when we are starving will we see such waste reduced, so in the meantime he needs to find a use and hopefully a revenue for it.

The more time you spend with New Zealand farmers the more you realise they are always innovating and looking for ways to do better (Fonterra have built an ad campaign with that simple message in mind). The truth is they need to as they battle the ever-changing weather patterns and increasing compliance costs.

Wendy says that “growers are the rock-stars of the food and beverage economy” and Monday’s event was a teaser of what she has planned -watch this space.

“We need to open the gates on production” Wendy says, “otherwise we are going to see more growers disappear in the face of demand for r housing, low prices for produce, and changing environmental conditions. We need a nationwide campaign supported by chefs, food service sector, restauranteurs, the Restaurant Association, and food writers showing their support for the sector and its value to the food economy where all parts work together for new, high value and desirable outcomes. We need to change the message, so the produce is the hero as opposed to the protein.”  Music to many a vegans’ ears

About the Author

Vicki Ravlich-Horan

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