Summer and strawberries, is there anything better? Whether on top of a pavlova, in real fruit ice-cream or eaten fresh, strawberries make summer that extra bit delicious. This summer will be sweeter than usual because an established Horowhenua producer has entered the strawberry market - Lewis Farms Strawberries.
There are a few things that make Lewis Farms Strawberries unique. Perhaps most exciting is that, in contrast to other producers, Lewis Farms will be able to grow strawberries right through to May each year. An extended season means extended eating, which is sure to please strawberry lovers.
From asparagus to strawberries - it’s all about the team
Lewis Farms is the home of Tendertips Asparagus, the iconic Horowhenua family business entering its 37th year. Cam and Catherine Lewis are fourth generation farmers continuing the family business, which is now diversifying into strawberries. A major driving force for diversification is to provide ongoing work for their staff.
“The asparagus season is only 100 days. Every year we go from a core team of six, to a workforce of over 150 staff, then we have to say ‘see you, we hope you come back next year!’ A big reason why we have gone into strawberries is so we can retain the labour force as well as utilise our packhouse,” Catherine says.
While there will be a busy period where the asparagus and strawberry picking overlap, the longer strawberry season and required planting will mean more staff can be employed up to 12 months of the year.
Cam and Catherine are confident there is sufficient demand in New Zealand for a new strawberry producer to enter the market. Particularly with the superior tasting strawberries they are targeting.
Tunnels, tables and technology make Lewis Farms unique
To establish Lewis Farms Strawberries, Cam and Catherine have chosen an innovative growing technology that is relatively new in New Zealand. They have invested in polytunnels, with strawberries grown on tables, rather than on the ground. This is combined with sophisticated technology that allows control over what water and food the plants receive.
“It’s our goal that the flavour profile and appearance of the strawberries will be premium – a large, sweet strawberry,” Catherine says.
MG Marketing, a co-operative representing producers, has worked with Lewis Farms during their diversification journey. “With adverse weather conditions occurring in New Zealand, growing under cover and out of the ground takes away the risk to the strawberries. The result is a better quality product with a greater shelf life,” says Peter Hendry, Chief Executive Officer of MG Marketing.
“It’s exciting because consumers have an opportunity to access good quality, New Zealand grown strawberries right through to early Autumn. Generally, the New Zealand strawberry season finishes in January, and after this time strawberries are imported from other countries,” he says.
A new business brings new challenges
The first strawberries are ready right now, after more than a year of planning and preparation. The polytunnels were shipped from the United Kingdom and assembled in February 2018. This involved constructing 15 long tunnels, covering 1.1 hectares of land. The strawberry plants, sourced from the upper North Island, were then planted. In May 2018, Lewis Farms employed an agronomist to manage the plants and ensure they grow as well as possible in this first season.
Starting a new business venture involves risk. The upfront investment in the polytunnel technology relies on successful crops to establish the business.
“The learning curve has been immense, and we have again been reminded of the challenges of doing something new. We are confident that we will learn quickly but people say horticulture, is “high risk” for a reason. We believe working through the challenges will help define our strawberries as we are absolutely determined in producing a gourmet offering which is nothing but the best. We couldn’t do it without our team. Cam and I do get a buzz out of employing people and being able to offer them work. Our team are amazing, we love our staff and they give us heaps,” Catherine says.
Cam and Catherine intend for Lewis Farms Strawberries to become another longstanding Horowhenua premium product, alongside Tendertips Asparagus. The scale of the operation means an abundance of strawberries will be grown in the Horowhenua. The strawberries will be sold in supermarkets and at the Tendertips packhouse at Poroutawhao, on State Highway 1.
Catherine sees the packhouse as evolving into a visitor destination. “This year it will be selling asparagus, fresh strawberries, coffee, honey and ice-cream. We want people to stop in, have a break, grab their fresh produce and enjoy,” she says.
What to expect on the Horowhenua Taste Trail
The future really is sweet for Lewis Farms. Participants on the Horowhenua Taste Trail will be some of the first people to try fresh strawberries from this new and exciting business.
On the day of the Horowhenua Taste Trail, the Tendertips packhouse will be a hub of activity.
The day will kick off with a champagne breakfast (sold out), with food prepared in front of the Participants by Ocean Beach Eatery.
There will be a pop-up garden bar and café. Throughout the day there will be tours of the strawberry tunnels and technology, as well as tours of the packhouse. Participants have the opportunity to buy fresh produce and fresh fruit ice-cream.
There will also be a Horowhenua Taster Plate available for those who have pre-purchased this as part of their ticket. A limited number of Taster Plates will be available on the day for an additional cost.