Growing fresh, crunchy salads and herbs is Liberty Growers’ specialty, and the family behind the business say ditching dirt for hydroponic growing is their secret to success.
“Hydroponic growing makes the produce taste crisp and fresh,” says Liberty Growers owner Debbie Miller.
“It’s a cleaner way to grow, and the plants tend to grow more efficiently. We use less water per plant compared to produce grown in soil, which is great from a conservation standpoint.”
Liberty Growers was already set up for hydroponic growing when Debbie and Malcolm Miller bought the Katikati business seven years ago.
The 1ha property features three large greenhouses, one of which is almost the size of a rugby field, filled with rows of pristine white hydroponic trays – quite a different look to a typical nursery.
“We still grow some things outside in the soil, like rhubarb, spring onions and sweet peas, but for our salads and herbs, there’s no beating hydroponic growing.”
Liberty Growers supply 13 wholesalers and restaurants, and are regular faces at the Katikati, Tauranga and Mount Maunganui farmers’ markets.
Debbie and Malcolm work and live in the Hawke’s Bay, but plan to retire in Katikati. The property has become a hub for their four adult children – two of whom have moved from the South Island in turn to run the business.
Currently, the business is run by the youngest Miller, Rosie, and her partner Sioeli Tu’itufu, who is the manager. “We love the lifestyle, and are always trying new things when the hours in the day allow it,” says Sioeli.
Natural as possible
“As well as ongoing help from the Millers, we have two part-time hydroponic assistants working for us.”
Sioeli says he’s interested to see if other hydroponic growers will become certified organic under the Organic Products Bill, which was introduced in February.
“The water solution includes fertilisers so the plant receives the nutrients it usually gets from soil, but it’s an interesting grey area as to whether that fits into what is considered organic.
“We have never claimed to be organic, but our hydroponic solution supplier is always keeping us informed and striving to be as natural as possible.”
The Covid-19 lockdown gave Liberty Growers more time to experiment. Malcolm’s latest trial was tomatillos, a tart green Mexican tomato commonly used to make dips.
“They grew well. Malcom used them for his own salsa verde, which earned rave reviews,” says Debbie. “Gardening is his hobby, which is part of the reason we bought the business.”
Chris Miller and his partner Jess Covell, who ran Liberty Growers for seven years prior to Rosie and Sioeli, also got creative with the produce.
They created Liberty Grower’s range of sugar-free hot sauces, as well as basil pesto and vegan coriander pesto, using locally-grown macadamia nuts.
After a trip to Japan, they started growing red and green shiso, a minty-tasting herb.
“Generic herbs and salads are well covered now, so it has been great to branch out.
“Since taking over, we’ve increased the range of produce grown here by half, and grow more than 30 different herbs, salads, eatable flowers and a small variety of fruit.”
While it presented many challenges, Covid-19 helped kickstart Liberty Growers’ delivery service, which they pulled together in a matter of days.
They delivered produce from Waihi to Papamoa every Saturday, as well as goods from their fellow Katikati growers. “It’s been a huge effort, with plenty of trial-and-error and time on the computer.
“We were lucky that our market customers wanted to keep buying from us during lockdown.”
Delivering in lockdown has its pitfalls. After driving from 10am-10pm on the first day of delivery, Debbie and Rosie were caught out with nowhere to buy food, or go to the toilet.
Covid-19 also encouraged Sioeli to up Liberty Growers’ social media presence. “Social Media has been a great tool to attract new customers,” says Sioeli.
“We had Black Fern and Olympic silver medallist Ruby Tui promote our produce, which was really exciting for us.”
Despite business losses, the family took the challenge of Covid-19 in their stride.
They donated more than $1000 worth of watercress and lettuce to the local marae, foodbank and Waihi community.
But they are pleased to be back at the markets. “We do our shopping at farmers markets, too. “It’s a perfect way to support local, which is important now more than ever.”