Harry and Mary Lowe live and work in Ashburton and are stalwarts of the organic industry. They became involved with organics in the 1980s, established New Zealand BioGrains, a company that is still going strong, and are a fount of knowledge about the industry in general. Sandie Finnie takes a looks at their business.
New Zealand BioGrains is on West Street, Ashburton, hard left over the railway line if you are travelling north into town, in a former butter factory. On entering the building to meet Harry and Mary Lowe, two things assail my senses. There is a fine layer of white powder over every surface of the interior of the building, emanating from the milling process. There is also a healthy nutty smell.
NZ BioGrains began 30 years ago when six organic farmers and a seaweed harvester formed a partnership with the aim of pooling their grains and exporting them in bulk to Europe.
“It was really quite an exciting time because as farmers we were quite isolated, and it became a bit of a farmer support group,” says Harry. “I had no intention of getting into organics; I just wasn’t happy with the way things were, with chemicals and stock health. I started using trace elements, which made a big difference. I had to learn to recognise the deficiencies in plants and animals so I knew what to put into the drenches. If I did things the way nature would have, if I wasn’t there, it was all quite simple.
“At that point I started buying seaweed off a guy and then he said there was a meeting and would I go along – that’s where it all started.”
However Australia and Canada were soon producing their own organic grains and NZ BioGrains couldn’t compete on price.
So the company switched its focus and developed a processing business to meet new domestic marketing opportunities. Harry and Mary paid the other shareholders out and became the sole owners. They say it’s ironic that there was a time when they could barely get rid of the bulk organic grains they had, and now they can’t get enough of them.
Demand outstrips supply
Demand for organic grains, peas and pulses exceeds production for NZ BioGrains, which is the largest organic mill and processor in the country.
Although the company has established markets and its own label in supermarkets, there are simply not enough arable producers in New Zealand able to commit to supplying bulk crops for the increasing number of clients who need surety of supply twelve months of the year. For this reason owners Harry and Mary source some of their products, particularly wheat, from North America, Australia and India.
Even so, the quantities they import are only half of what they need to satisfy demand, and there is a global organic grain shortage as well.
There are various reasons for the shortage of arable organic crops grown here. It is in part because land prices, driven up by demand for dairy, are prohibitive for some organic farmers. Also, for non-organic arable farmers to switch to organics they need to get their head around the changes, for example moving away from high nitrate applications and the use of non-organic agrichemicals and fungicides. They also need to learn alternative animal health intervention strategies if farming sheep or beef. Organic farming can involve less stock, lower inputs and restoring soil health with organic fertiliser and management practices in order to grow quality crops. Going through the transition period to become fully certified organic generally takes three years.
A lot of the organic arable crops the Lowes buy are grown in the South Island where there are farmers who did take the leap of faith. As they became more involved in NZ BioGrains, the Lowes themselves leased three farms to grow the arable crops they needed, but now they only lease a small block at Chertsey to grow buckwheat, oats and peas.
The Lowes believe it will take a groundswell of consumers demanding healthier and organic food to generate farmer confidence in going ahead with new organic conversions, but Harry thinks this is already happening as he has received a number of enquiries from conventional farmers in the last six months.
“What’s happening in the dairy industry is quite exciting,” says Harry. “There’s a lot of farmers converting to organics, particularly in the North Island but also in the South.”
If prices for non-organic milk solids decline or stagnate, while prices for organic milk continue to be considerably higher, this will be the catalyst for some farmers to consider transitioning to organic milk supply. (Fonterra pays $9.20 per kg of milk solids to organic dairy farmers in the North Island, while its non-organic milk payout plunged to $3.90 earlier in 2016 and rose to a forecast $6 per kg at the time of writing.) The more dairy farmers go organic, the more other farmers will also go organic, to grow organic arable crops and pasture to support the organic dairy industry.
“And once those farmers see how their cows are doing they’ll start eating organic food themselves,” says Harry.
Meanwhile there are not enough organic farms in New Zealand to sustain organic farm consultants, but because of their business longevity and knowledge of organic crops, the Lowes are an obvious point of contact and they welcome enquiries.
When I arrive, Harry is engrossed in paperwork that is part of the thorough auditing formalities for their business. Their organic products are certified organic by BioGro New Zealand, which requires authentication of produce from point of origin through to processing at the Ashburton factory.
All imported products are certified organic before they leave their place of origin and Harry says the overseas certifications are equally tough. A lot of the imported grains are pooled from subsistence farmers in India, and the aggregation from multiple growers makes the paperwork even more difficult. “But we believe in their products,” says Harry.
NZ BioGrains also processes and sells biological grains, which are not certified organic, but are from unsprayed lines or from farms going through the transition period to becoming fully organic.
“It’s not a brand; it’s a description of a type of farming that reflects people who are dissatisfied with most farm techniques and are going towards organics,” says Harry. “If you get the fertiliser right and do that first, then you don’t have to spray. Once they start moving away from sprays they see the changes in their crops and animal health and go through the change to organics.”
Customers large and small
Over the years the Lowes have seen a surge in their customer base and interest in organics in general. One thing is obvious: the Lowes are able to meet consumer requirements across the scale by supplying products in kilogram lots for householders, to tonnages for farmers, and flours for organic bakeries and restaurants.
Although the factory and storage suggests huge tonnages of products entering and leaving the site, there is also a front retail department where shoppers can call in and buy smaller quantities off the shelf. Orders are either couriered direct to clients or, for larger quantities, the company truck does a delivery run from one end of the South Island to the other, dropping products off along the way.
They have also diversified some of their products into companies for example that use their flours and imported dried fruits to make sultana snack bars. A few heritage grains are also imported, among them amaranth, once a staple for the ancient Aztecs who believed it conferred supernatural powers. NZ BioGrains has grown it at times but at the moment is importing it from India.
A large coolroom at the back of the building (formerly the butter storage room) is used for storing some of the heritage grains as seed reserves. It’s important the environment remains cool and dry to reduce the likelihood of fungus and insects in the products.
Grist for the mill
As millers, processors, retailers and distributors the Lowes have had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in plant, equipment and systems that enable them to dress seeds (remove weed seeds), dehusk and flatten some grains (for example oats into rolled oats that don’t lose their nutrient and vitamin content), mix dry goods into pellets for stock feed for poultry and pigs, and set up traceability systems for everything.
Harry and mechanic Hamish Thompson are intimately acquainted with the running of the massive plant and machinery, which has to withstand heavy workloads during the milling and pulverising processes. They can fix most things that break down.
Reflecting on their business, Harry and Mary agree it’s been hard work but they have set up good infrastructures and say they receive tremendous support from their clients. Many people passing through Ashburton pop into the shop to stock up on products as they go.
Harry and Mary Lowe and their staff have shown incredible dedication and integrity for many years, and NZ BioGrains is a vital part of the organic scene.
New Zealand BioGrains at a glance
- Established as a company in 1986.
- New Zealand’s largest organic mill.
- Mills, processes and distributes organic grains, flours, pulses and stock foods.
- Wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt, buckwheat, quinoa and pulses are grown in New Zealand; some wheat and other products are imported.
- Other products include sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds; blackcurrants; honey; apple cider vinegar and more.
- Most products certified organic by BioGro.
- biograins.co.nz, 03 308 7349
Listen to the podcast of Harry Lowe interviewed on RNZ National’s Country Life programme in 2012: bit.ly/2gpzSMm
Sandie Finnie is an independent journalist from Geraldine.
Photo caption: Harry and Mary Lowe relaxing in their backyard garden in Ashburton
Photo: Sandie Finnie