Exploring the benefits of “protected cropping”

Exploring the benefi ts of “protected cropping”
Elanza Fresh has established New Zealand’s largest intensive indoor berry and fruit nursery to produce high value crops which are traditionally grown outdoors.

New Zealand’s largest intensive indoor berry and fruit nursery, Elanza Fresh, has been established to produce high value crops traditionally grown outdoors.
Set up by David Saunders on the site of the former Greenhouse Park at Aongetete in the Bay of Plenty, Elanza Fresh now features a wide range of crops being trialled and grown for what he calls “protected cropping”.
These range from berry-fruit (with emphasis on blackberries, blueberries and raspberries), summerfruit including cherries, persimmons, table grapes and figs.
Elanza Fresh has five key divisions; plant breeding, focusing on berry-fruit; crop development headed by David’s wife, Carmo, who has a PhD in wine grape science; a plant nursery, supplying plants to Elanza Fresh clients; and a production unit and a market development programme which are targeted at both local and export markets.
A visit and walk around the farm is the best way to garner a sense of the scale of the operation, the value of the enterprise, the technologies being employed and the challenges that go with converting the former hot-house market garden.
The “nerve-centre” on the farm is a building housing three large vats, supplying a cocktail of liquid food through the wireless Autogrow system to the thousands of plants each growing in their own pumice filled pot. While persimmons and cherries are all exported, figs are sold locally as well as off-shore.
“This has got to be one of the windiest areas to grow on with the Kaimai Hills just west,” says David.
He says the protected cropping approach brings significant benefits, including higher, predictable yields of consistent higher quality, production over extended periods and lower resource utilisation in terms of water, nutrients and sprays.
“There’s the potential to have a low environmental impact in that water and nutrients can be recycled and minimal spray drift given the crops are all enclosed,” David explains. He says that while protected cropping is not new, it is “relatively new” to New Zealand.
“It’s been a common practice in countries such as Spain for many years. What is interesting is that the use of high tunnels (Spanish tunnels) were mainly developed to conserve water.” He says there are two main reasons for developing protected cropping in New Zealand.
“Consumers are increasingly seeking products of high, consistent quality on a year-round basis, and optimisation of resource utilisation, specifically water, light, heat and nutrients.”
Another advantage in using protected cropping is that crop production is independent of soil type and there is no need to use elite soils.
“It is our view that water, in particular, will become an increasingly valuable and scarce resource and the times where we could treat it with scarce respect, both in terms of extraction and discharge, are gone.”
David says one major constraint is labour, with an increasing demand for highly educated, technically and IT literate people. “This is a technology hungry industry where the main limitation to performance is knowledge.”
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